Authors: Susanna Gregory
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Historical
?’ queried Wynewyk. ‘Is he any relation to him?’ He nodded to where Thomas Mortimer’s cart had collided with a hay wagon,
causing damage to both vehicles. The hay-wainer was not amused, and his angry curses could be heard all up the High Street.
‘His nephew,’ said Langelee shortly. ‘But the return of that pair bodes ill, for scholars and townsfolk alike.’
Thorpe I saw just now,’ said Bartholomew. ‘But how did this come about? I thought they had been banished from England for
the rest of their lives.’
‘I thought they had been
for their crimes,’ replied Langelee grimly. ‘Not merely ordered to abjure the realm. But, from France, they managed to convince
the King’s Bench clerks that their sentence was overly harsh.’
‘Perhaps they are reformed,’ suggested Wynewyk. ‘It is not unknown for folk to repent of their misdeeds after they are sent
away in disgrace. You may be worrying over nothing.’
‘We are not,’ said Langelee firmly. ‘They were dangerous two years ago, and they are dangerous now. I am on my way to discuss
the matter with the Chancellor and the Sheriff, to see what – if anything – might be done to prevent them from settling here.’
He strode away purposefully.
‘He is exaggerating the seriousness of these fellows’ return,’ said Wynewyk, watching Langelee shoulder his way through the
boisterous, cheering crowd that had gathered
to watch the fist-fight between the miller and the hay-wainer. He glanced sidelong at Bartholomew. ‘Is he not?’
‘I do not think so,’ replied Bartholomew soberly. ‘I cannot imagine what Thorpe and Mortimer did to secure their pardons,
but the fact that they are back means only one thing: trouble.’
That February saw the end of the worst winter anyone in Cambridge could remember. Screaming northerly winds had turned the
river into an iron highway, and had deposited hundreds of tons of snow on to the little Fen-edge town, threatening to bury
it completely. When milder weather eventually came, the drifts that choked streets and yards were so deep that it took many
weeks for the largest ones to melt. The biggest of them all was the mammoth pile outside Bene’t College on the High Street.
This had turned to ice as hard as stone, and attacking it with spades proved to be futile work, so the citizens of Cambridge
were obliged to let it disappear in its own time. It did so gradually, and people commented on its slowly diminishing size
as they passed. Children played on it, using its slick sides for games, while some artistic soul caused a good deal of merriment
by carving faces into it.
Weeks passed, until the drift dwindled to the point where people barely noticed it was there. Then, one morning, only the
very base remained. It was old Master Kenyngham of Michaelhouse who discovered its grisly secret. He was walking to his friary
for morning prayers, when he saw a dead, white arm protruding from it. He knelt, to whisper prayers for the soul of a man
who had lain unmissed and undiscovered for so long. There was a piece of parchment clutched in the corpse’s hand, so Kenyngham
removed it from the decaying fingers, and read the message.
It was a note from a London merchant to his Cambridge kinsman, informing him of an imminent visit and detailing
a plan to relieve a mutual enemy of some money. Kenyngham folded the parchment and put it in his scrip, intending to hand
it to the Senior Proctor later. But first, there was a man’s soul to pray for, and Kenyngham soon lost himself as he appealed
to Heaven on behalf of a man he had never met.
Two weeks later, Kenyngham met Bosel the beggar, who made his customary plea for spare coins. The elderly friar emptied his
scrip in search of farthings, and did not notice the forgotten parchment flutter to the ground. Bosel saw it, however, and
snatched it up as soon as Kenyngham had gone. He peered at it this way and that, but since he could not read, the obscure
squiggles and lines meant nothing to him. He sold it to the town’s surgeon, Robin of Grantchester, for a penny.
Robin suffered from poor eyesight, and in dim light could not make out the words, either. He did not care what it said anyway,
because parchment was parchment, and too valuable not to be reused. He scraped it clean with his knife, then rubbed it with
chalk, and sold it for three pennies to Godric, the young Franciscan Principal of Ovyng Hostel. Robin went to spend his windfall
on spiced ale at the King’s Head; Godric walked home and spent the afternoon composing a moving and eloquent prayer, which
he wrote carefully on the parchment.
Shortly before midnight, Godric rose and rang a small handbell to wake his students, then led them in a solemn, shivering
procession through the streets to St Michael’s Church, where he recited matins and lauds. When the office had been completed,
he went to the mound in the churchyard that marked the place where his predecessor had been laid to rest a few weeks before.
He scraped a shallow hole and laid the prayer inside, before bowing his head and walking away.
Bosel watched intently from the shadows thrown by a buttress. When Godric had gone, he moved forward, alert
to the fact that Cambridge was a dangerous place at night and that beggars were not the only ones who lurked unseen in the
darkness. He reached the grave and crouched next to it, hoping the Franciscan had buried something valuable – something that
could be sold to raise a few coins for ale or a good meal. He was disappointed to discover parchment, and swore softly as
he reburied it. He considered taking it to Robin, but only briefly. For all Bosel knew, the jumble of letters might comprise
a curse, and only the foolish meddled with those sorts of things. He patted the earth back into place and wondered where he
might find richer pickings that night.
As he pondered, he became aware that he was not the only one in the churchyard. He could hear voices as two people argued
with each other. Knowing that conversations held among graves at the witching hour were unlikely to be innocent, and that
witnesses might well be dispatched, Bosel shot back into the shadows, hoping he had not been seen. He waited, his body held
so tensely that every muscle ached with the effort. When no cries of pursuit followed, he began to relax. Then he grew curious,
wanting to know what business pulled folk from warm beds on such a damp and chilly night. He eased around the buttress carefully
and silently, until he could see them.
He recognised both immediately. One was Thomas Deschalers the grocer, who was the wealthiest merchant in the town. He was
also the meanest, although in the last couple of weeks he had deigned to toss Bosel a few coins, and had even taken to having
bread and old clothes dispensed from his back door of a morning. The other was a popular Carmelite scholar called Nicholas
Bottisham. Bosel liked Bottisham: he was generous, and never too busy to bless beggars if they called out to him. Bosel could
not help but wonder what the gentle friar and the arrogant merchant could have to say to each other.
‘I do not know about this,’ Bottisham was saying uneasily. ‘Even you must appreciate that it is an odd thing to ask me to
‘I know.’ Deschalers sounded tired. ‘But I thought—’
He stopped speaking abruptly when the night’s stillness was broken by the sound of marching feet, the clink of armour and
the creak of old leather.
‘It is the night watch!’ exclaimed Bottisham in an alarmed whisper. ‘I do not want them to find me here with you, when I should
be at my prayers inside. The answer to your question is no.’
Deschalers released what sounded like a groan. ‘But I assure you, with all my heart—’
Bottisham cut across his entreaties. ‘No – and that is the end of the matter. But I must go, or my colleagues will wonder
what I have been doing.’
And then he was gone, leaving the grocer standing alone with his shoulders slumped in an attitude of defeat. Bosel pushed
himself deeper into the shadows as Deschalers trudged past, sensing that this would not be a good time to make an appeal for
spare change. The conversation was exactly the kind folk usually wanted to keep to themselves, and Bosel knew better than
to reveal himself. He shuddered, supposing it was something involving money or power, neither of which Bosel knew much about.
He decided to forget what he had seen. It was safer that way.
Cambridge, March 1355
Thomas Mortimer the miller was drunk again. He had managed to climb on to his cart and take the reins, but only because his
horses were used to his frequent visits to the town’s taverns, and knew to wait until he was safely slumped in the driver’s
seat before making their way home. His fellow drinkers at the Lilypot Inn raised dull, bloodshot eyes from their cups to watch,
but these were men for whom ale was a serious business, and the spectacle of an inebriated miller struggling into his cart
did not keep their attention for long.
It claimed someone’s, however. Brother Michael, the University’s Senior Proctor and Benedictine agent for the Bishop of Ely,
who taught theology at Michaelhouse when his other duties allowed, fixed the miller with a disapproving glare.
‘If Mortimer were a scholar, I would have him off that cart and imprisoned for driving dangerously, not to mention public
drunkenness,’ he declared angrily. ‘But he is a townsman, and therefore outside my jurisdiction. The Sheriff and the burgesses
will have to deal with him.’
‘They have done nothing so far,’ said Matthew Bartholomew, Master of Medicine at Michaelhouse, who strode at Michael’s side.
‘He knocked his rival miller across that snowdrift outside Bene’t College two weeks ago, and he will kill someone if he continues
to drive when he can barely stand upright. The burgesses listened politely to my
complaints about him, but said they do not want to offend the Mortimer clan by ordering Thomas off his cart.’
Michael shook his head in disgust. ‘They are afraid that if they do, then the Mortimers will refuse to donate money for repairing
the Great Bridge.’
The two scholars had just left Merton Hall, where they had taken part in a lively debate on the neglect of mathematics in
academic studies, and were on their way to Gonville Hall. They had been invited to dine there by William Rougham, one of Bartholomew’s
medical colleagues. Bartholomew did not like Rougham, whom he found narrow-minded and dogmatic, but he felt obliged to suppress
his feelings as well as he could, given that he and Rougham comprised exactly half of the total complement of physicians in
Cambridge. So many medics had died during the plague that they were still in short supply, despite the best attempts of the
University to train more.
It was a pleasant early spring day, with the sun dipping in and out of gauzy white clouds and trees beginning to turn green
with buds and new leaves. A crisp breeze blew from the east, bringing with it the scent of freshly tilled soil from the surrounding
fields. Bartholomew inhaled deeply, savouring the sweetness of the air at the northern outskirts of the town. A few steps
ahead lay the Great Bridge, a teetering structure of stone and wood, and beyond this the air was far less fragrant. Fires
from houses, Colleges, hostels and businesses encased Cambridge in a pall of smoke, almost, but not quite, strong enough to
mask the stench of human sewage, animal manure and rotting rubbish that lay across the streets in a thick, fetid, greasy brown-black
The Great Bridge was heavily congested that morning. It was a Wednesday, and traders from the surrounding villages streamed
towards the Market Square to sell their wares – sacks of grain and flour, noisy livestock, brown eggs
wrapped in straw, winter vegetables past their best, and rough baskets and mats woven from Fenland reeds. Agitated whinnies,
baleful lows and furious honks and hisses expressed what the animals thought of the tightly packed, heaving throng that jostled
and shoved to cross the river.
It was not just farmers in homespun browns or brightly clad merchants who wanted access to the town that day. The sober hues
of academic tabards and monastic habits – the blacks, browns and whites of Dominicans, Carmelites, Franciscans and the occasional
Benedictine – were present, too. Scholars from Michaelhouse, Valence Marie, Bene’t College and countless other institutions
were pouring out of Merton Hall to join the press, all anxious to be home in time for their midday meal.
As people pushed in their haste to be across the bridge, the crush intensified. A pair of tinkers with handcarts became jammed
at the narrow entrance, and their irritable altercation was soon joined by others, who just wanted them to shut up and move
on. Bartholomew watched the unfolding scene uneasily. The Great Bridge was not the most stable structure in the town, and
collapses were not unknown. It was in desperate need of renovation, and he wished the burgesses would stop discussing how
expensive it would be and just mend the thing.
‘We will be late,’ said Michael loudly, annoyed by the delay. ‘And Gonville Hall might start eating without us.’
‘The bridge should not be subjected to this level of strain,’ said Bartholomew. His attention was fixed on the central arch,
which he was certain was bowing under the weight of a brewer’s dray and its heavy barrels of ale. ‘It is not strong enough.’
‘Rougham told me that the meal at Gonville today will cost a
groat for each person,’ fretted Michael, thinking about what he stood to lose if they took much longer to cross. ‘He says
there is a side of beef to be shared between
just ten of us, not to mention roast duck, fat bacon and half a dozen chickens.
there will be Lombard slices to finish.’
‘Did you see that?’ exclaimed Bartholomew, pointing in alarm. ‘A spar just dropped from the left-hand arch and fell into the
‘One of the carts knocked it off,’ said Michael dismissively. He reconsidered uneasily. ‘However, if it is going to tumble
down, I hope it does not do so until we are over. I do not want to walk all the way around to the Small Bridges in order to
reach Gonville. There will be nothing left to eat by the time we get there.’