Troubled Bones: New Excerpt

An exclusive excerpt of Chapters 1-3 from Jeri Westerson’s Troubled Bones is now available on Criminal Element for members. To read the full excerpt, please log in or register.

Troubled Bones by Jeri WestersonDisgraced knight Crispin Guest gets himself into some serious trouble in London and as a result is forced to accept an assignment far out of town.  The Archbishop of Canterbury has specifically requested Guest to investigate a threat against the bones of saint and martyr Thomas à Beckett, which are on display in the cathedral in Canterbury.  The archbishop has received letters threatening the safety of the artifacts, and he wants Guest to protect them and uncover whoever is after them.

When he arrives at Canterbury, Guest is accosted by an old acquaintance from court – one Geoffrey Chaucer – and is surrounded by a group in town on a pilgrimage. Trapped amongst the pilgrims (who were, quite possibly, the model for Chaucer’s famous story cycle), looking for a murderer, a hidden heretic and a solution to the riddle that will allow him to go back home, Crispin Guest finds his considerable wit and intellect taxed to its very limit.

 

Chapter 1

“Mordre wol out, that see we day by day.”
 —Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”

Canterbury, 1385
“Why’d you have to take me along, Master Crispin?” complained Jack Tucker, gripping the horse’s mane as his body jerked with the rouncey’s gait. The boy looked up sorrowfully through a mesh of ginger fringe. “Shouldn’t someone keep watch of our lodgings back in London? Shouldn’t I have stayed behind?”

“Master Kemp can keep good watch of his own tinker shop, I should think,” said Crispin. “And if you ever wish to follow in my footsteps, you must accompany me when I have a paid assignment. As you know, such assignments are few.”

“I’d rather follow in your footsteps at that, Master, than ride this beast. If God had wanted Man to have four feet He’d have created Adam with them.”

Crispin’s left hand lazily held the reins. “Jack, you’re fighting him. Roll with the gait. Become as one with him.”

“Tell it to the horse.”

Chuckling, Crispin raised his eyes to the road. The walls of Canterbury drew closer and rose above the distant copses. It wouldn’t be long before they could finally get some food and a warm bed. Though he appreciated being on a horse once again, the constant drizzle had made their two-day journey from London less than comfortable.

“Why should the archbishop want you to do this thing, sir?” Jack asked.

Crispin gripped the reins. Tension flickered up the muscles in his arm. “The letter delivered to the sheriffs was frustratingly vague.All I know is that it seems to be a matter of Saint Thomas à Becket’s bones.”

Jack shook his head and whistled. “Saint Thomas the Martyr. It’s like a pilgrimage. God blind me! I’ve never been on a pilgrimage before. And Thomas the Martyr at that. I should very much like to see his bones. They say that Saint Thomas defied a king. A little like you did, Master,” he added sheepishly.

Crispin made a sound in his throat but said nothing. He couldn’t help but feel a kinship for the martyr. Thomas a’ Becket had been his own man, to be sure, saint or no. “But we did leave London rather hastily,” Jack went on. “Why, sir, if you hate dealing with relics so much, were you in such a hurry to do this task?”

“I will be paid well for it. I’ve already received two shillings. Four days’ wages isn’t bad for work not yet done.”

“True. But I’ve never seen you hurry for no one, let alone a cleric.”

Crispin heaved a sigh. He could ignore the boy, tell him to be still and to mind his own business, but after only one short year of knowing the ginger-haired lad, he knew it was pointless. “Th e sheriffs gave me a choice,” he said at last. “Follow the bidding of the archbishop or go to gaol.”

“Gaol, sir?”

Crispin adjusted on his saddle. “It seems I might have gotten into a scuffle at the Boar’s Tusk.”

“Master Crispin!”

“A man was bedeviling Mistress Langton! Should I have stood by while he insulted the tavernkeeper?”

“You were drunk.”

Crispin shot him a dark glance. “Careful, Tucker.”

“Well . . . were you?”

He pulled his hood down, shivering with a cold wind. “I might have been. The crux of the matter is that the man was a courtier. And I, er, might have . . . struck him.”

“God blind me. Then it’s a wonder they didn’t just hang you.”

“Indeed.”

They fell silent as they reached the city’s gates and then wended their way through narrow lanes, some little wider than the horses’ flanks. The late-afternoon light filtered down through the valleys of Canterbury’s shops and houses. Their second and third tiers overhung the streets, cutting short the weak light angling through the spring mist. They found an inn at the end of Mercy Lane, just a bowshot from Canterbury Cathedral, and Crispin left it to Jack to stable both horses and secure a room.

Standing alone at the base of the steps to the great arch of the cathedral’s west door, Crispin brushed the mud from his coat. Th ere was little he could do about the state of his stockings with their mud and holes, but surely the archbishop was aware of his situation. After all, he’d asked specifically for Crispin himself.

He climbed the steps and entered the vestibule. Cold stone surrounded him while the stained-glass windows cast rainbows on the floor. The nave opened before him, flanked on either side by a colonnade of impossibly tall stone pillars upholding ribbed vaults. A labyrinth of scaffolding clung to the nave’s pillars with spidery fingers of poles and ropes. The church’s reconstruction had been under way for years, yet didn’t seem any closer to completion since Crispin had last visited nearly a de cade ago. While masons worked, showering the nave with stone dust, artisans continued painting the stone runners, spandrels, and corbels in elaborate colors and stripes. The nave was alive in color and gold leaf. Every corner, every inch of every carved bit of stone smelled of new paint and varnish.

He walked across the stone floor, his boots echoing. When he turned at the quire, he made a nod toward the northwest transept archway into Saint Benet’s chapel, a miniature church within the large cathedral.

The place where Becket was murdered.

He moved on past the quire on his right and then ascended another set of steps—the pilgrim’s steps—to the Chapel of Saint Thomas, its own little parish of occupied tombs and tombs yet to be occupied. Always room for one more. He couldn’t help but turn his glance to one tomb in particular. It was overhung with a canopy of carved wood covered in gold leaf. He paused and walked forward to study it.

A latten knight lay with hands raised in prayer over his chest. A crown encircled his helm. He did not lie with eyes closed but stared upward at some unseen paradise . . . or possibly a battle, for to the silent knight, Paradise and Battle might very well have been one and the same.

For a long time, Crispin stood and stared at the tomb and at the polished figure of Prince Edward of Woodstock. He crossed himself, studied the face of the man he had known well, and finally turned from the sepulcher.

A drowsy shuffle of monks echoed in the church.

Crispin turned and stood for a moment, absorbing the sight of Becket’s shrine in the center of the chapel. The chapel’s stone pillars created a circle about Crispin and shone golden with the afternoon sun streaming in from the many windows. Raised up on stone steps, the shrine was taller than a man. A stone plinth supported the wooden base, itself resplendent with carved arcades and fine decoration, gold-leafed, painted. As fine as any throne. Set above it all was a finely wrought wooden canopy hiding the gold- and-jewel-encrusted casket in which Becket’s remains lay.  The canopy was a proud structure of carvings, gold leaf, and bells. Ropes were fastened from the canopy to the center boss on the ceiling. By pulleys and wheels, the canopy could be lifted to reveal the casket’s magnificence—for the pilgrims who paid their fee.

Crispin frowned. His eyes searched the shadows. The shrine looked the same as it had probably looked for two centuries.

He turned to go when the sound of voices and scuffing feet stopped him. Pilgrims. Then monks appeared from the shadows and positioned themselves before the ropes and pulleys, ready to reveal Becket’s casket. His heart fluttered. How many times had he seen this tomb himself? But he was just as affected as the first time when he was a boy. The archbishop could wait. He wanted a look at Becket’s tomb. Just another pilgrim in the crowd.

Steps approached and the voices hushed. The pilgrims, here to see Becket’s shrine, moved along the north ambulatory, gawking at the images of Saint Thomas’s miracles depicted in the stained-glass windows. They were a varied flock, as Crispin expected. Travelers came from all over the kingdom to see Becket’s bones. Some looked to be clerics from other parishes, a priest in rich robes, and two demure nuns in dark habits. A man of wealth was flanked by what appeared to be two tradesmen. A round-bodied woman in a fine gown and cloak stood in the center of the crowd, a look of concentration on her face as she stared at the tomb as if willing it to give up its secrets, while two men, one thin and the other stout,skulked behind the other pilgrims, whispering to each other.

The two monks who stood by the ropes stared suspiciously atCrispin before they set to work cranking the canopy away fromthe casket. Slowly, with the sound of the rope squealing over the pulley, and with bells tinkling, the canopy lifted higher and the first motes of light struck the casket’s gold. The sun revealed it, brushing along its box of carved pillars.

Crispin stood off to the side, waiting in the shadows for the pilgrims to pass. The visitors murmured and were slowly ushered forward one at a time by two monks.

Out of the silence, a sharp voice rang out, incongruous in the silent presence of tombs and the ancient stone chair of Saint Austin standing in a shaft of sunlight. “Well, I’ll be damned. Cris Guest!”

It couldn’t be. That unmistakable voice. A sinking feeling seized his gut and Crispin slowly turned.

God’s blood. Geoffrey Chaucer.

 

Chapter 2

Chaucer clapped crispin on the shoulder and stood back“Cris! By God! Let me look at you. I have not seen you in . . . Holy Mother. How long has it been?”

“Eight or so years,” he answered stiffly.

“You look very thin.”

“Starvation will do that.”

Chaucer gave an embarrassed laugh. “Indeed. Well.”

Crispin eyed the monks, glaring in their direction. He took Chaucer’s arm and directed him out of the chapel area.

“Must you speak so loudly?” Crispin muttered.

“You know me, Cris,” said Chaucer, his voice just as loud. “It is my way.”

“I remember.” He tried to suppress his initial shock. He wasn’t successful. He looked at Chaucer, now with a curly beard and mustache. He wore a red ankle-length gown trimmed in dark fur. His belt was dotted with silver studs and held a dagger with a bejeweled pommel. A familiar dagger. One Crispin had gifted to Chaucer too many years ago to count. “What brings you here, Geoffrey? Shouldn’t Lancaster’s poet be at court?” He released Geoffrey,though all he wanted to do was clap him in his arms.

“The duke’s poet cannot go on a pilgrimage for the sake of his soul?” Chaucer talked in a nervous rush, too jocular, too carefree. “And what brings you here, Master Guest? I thought you’d sworn off pilgrimages.”

Crispin forced himself back to the present. It had been many a year since he and Chaucer called themselves friends. He weighed how much to reveal. Slowly, he said, “I’m here on a task for the archbishop.”

“Task?”

“I must find employment where I can.”

If Chaucer was embarrassed, he no longer showed it. “Where are you staying? I am at the Martyrs Inn. I assume there will be ample opportunity to catch up with each other’s news. It has been a long time, after all. We’ve gone our separate ways from those long ago days serving Lancaster, eh? And I . . . well.” He paused, his eyes alive and searching every crease and plane ofCrispin’s face. The rush of words finally hit a stopping point. First he eased back, looking at the long tips of his shoes. Then he edged forward again, raised his face, and said more quietly, “In truth, I would know how you have fared. I remember our days together fondly.”

Crispin softened but didn’t quite relax. “As do I.” The moment was broken when Chaucer gave a familiar smirk. He stepped back again to boldly appraise his friend. His hat flapped against his back, its long liripipe tail holding it in place across his chest. “Where do you stay? We will meet, will we not?”

“No doubt. I am at the Martyrs, too.” His gut roiled with emotions he did his best to tamp down. “I . . . I must go. Later, Geoffrey. Later.”

Chaucer tried to speak but Crispin slipped away without looking back. He did not know exactly why he felt so uncomfortable seeing Chaucer again. He reckoned it was mostly because he always felt a certain amount of unease and embarrassment when encountering someone from his former days when he was still a knight and lord. And Chaucer had been one of his best friends; a friend whom Crispin had made certain to abandon.

He strode quickly through the church and out, feeling a sense of relief to walk in the sunshine and leave Chaucer behind. He headed toward the great hall where the archbishop’s lodgings were situated and encountered a locked gate at the stair. He pulled the bell rope and soon a monk appeared.

“Benedicte,” said the monk.

“I have come at the bidding of his Excellency the Archbishop. Tell him Crispin Guest is at the gate.”

The monk looked less than inspired with this request, but he turned, trudged back up the stairs, and disappeared around the landing.

Crispin rubbed his chapped hands together and stomped his feet to ward off the chill. He’d met his Excellency William de Courtenay once years ago. How did the archbishop come to think of him for this assignment? It warmed a place in his chest to think that his fame as the Tracker had reached Canterbury, but he squashed the thought just as quickly. If Courtenay remembered him at all, it was as a protégé to John of Gaunt and consequently Courtenay’s enemy.

He startled when the monk hurried back down the steps. Th e monk took a key from a ring at his cincture, unlocked the gate, and pulled it open. He seemed surprised to find himself saying, “His Excellency will see you immediately.” He locked the gate again and Crispin followed him up the staircase, through a corner of the great hall, and to a large arched door. The monk knocked,listened a moment, then ushered him through.

Courtenay looked up from his reading with striking blue eyes set in a fleshy but earnest face. A classical nose found on many a Roman statue rose over well-carved lips and a prominent chin. He stood at his place behind a large table and ornate chair. Courtenay wore the long robes of his office. A red cap fit snugly on a head of curled brown hair. The archbishop pushed the chair aside and strode around the table. He seemed to be a man in his full capacity, fully aware of his role and his position in society. He, like the martyred Becket, had once served as chancellor to a king, but resigned after serving King Richard only four months. Crispin had no reason to suspect that he left the king’s services due to any lack of affection for the young king, but he did wonder.

He knelt, kissed Courtenay’s ring quickly, and stepped back.

The cleric stood and openly inspected him. Over the years, Crispin expected a certain amount of scrutiny, especially from those who were aware of his history, but knowing this never seemed to dull the sensation that he was a horse at market.

“Crispin Guest,” said the archbishop in a clipped and patrician tone. Courtenay hooked his thumbs into his embroidered belt. “We’ve met before, you know.”

“Yes, your Excellency. I thought we might have done.”

“But those circumstances are best forgotten.”

He agreed. “But if that is so, my lord, then why did you send for me in particular?”

Courtenay smiled. He gestured to a sideboard before he sat in a chair beside the fire. “Pour some wine, Master Guest.”

He bowed and moved to the sideboard. He poured wine from a silver flagon into two silver goblets and took them to the fire, giving Courtenay one and keeping the other. Courtenay offered him a wooden chair beside him, and Crispin sat.

“You are well known in certain circles, Master Guest,” said Courtenay. His jeweled ring glittered as he turned the goblet in his hand. “And your recent doings at court have made association with you less of a disadvantage than it might have been before.”

Crispin raised a brow. Saving the king’s life? He supposed that made him less of a pariah, though he was still not quite welcomed at court. No one quite forgot treason, he supposed.

“Indeed,” Courtenay went on, “your skills investigating crimes make you highly desirable and quite the only one I wished to consider.”

Crispin drank in silence.

Courtenay’s eyes fixed on him. Suddenly, he offered, “I remember tales of Sir Henry Guest. He was a valorous knight and a devoted baron to the crown as well as servant of Lancaster and the old king.”

Crispin straightened at Courtenay’s unexpected words. He cleared his throat. “I do not recall much of my father,” he said carefully. “He was often gone to war, where he died.”

“Yes. And that was when you were fostered into Lancaster’s house hold, I believe.”

“Yes, when I was seven. No mother and no father, save Gaunt.”

“Your liege lord raised you well, making you a knight.”

Crispin moved against the seat, trying to find a comfortable spot. “Lancaster is no longer my liege lord.” He wished he could leap to his feet and cast over the chair. Instead, he gripped the arm. “Situations change. Particularly of late.” I came all this way, dammit. Get to the point!

“Lancaster has staunch views on religious matters. One might even say they lean toward heresy.”

“My religious views do not necessarily mirror that of my former mentor.”

“Well then. Can I assume that you are a friend of the Church?”

The comfortable spot on the chair still eluded him. He edged forward. “I am neither friend nor foe of the Church.”

“Am I mistaken about you, Master Guest? I heard from my brother monk, Abbot Nicholas of Westminster Abbey, of his high regard for you. Of deeds you have performed for the sake of Mother Church.”

“He is a friend.”

“And the relics?”

He couldn’t help cringing. Did it always come to that? The chair proved too uncomfortable. He snapped to his feet, started to pace before the fire, and then thought better of it.

He stood before it instead, keeping his back to the flames. “Simply because a holy relic falls into my hands—for whatever reason—does not mean I believe in its power.”

Courtenay took a sip of wine, his gaze never leaving Crispin. “Then why do these relics come to you?”

He threw up a hand. “I know not. Perhaps it is God’s plan. Or jest.”

“I suppose a man like you can be trusted, if the Almighty finds you worthy.”

“You can trust me. For a shilling you can buy all the trust you desire.”

“For money? I don’t believe you.”

Crispin set the goblet down hard, spilling some of the wine. “You know my history. I have learned that the only thing that can be trusted is gold.”

“That is not a godly sentiment. Aren’t you a good Christian, Master Guest?”

He raised his chin, staring up at the ribbed ceiling and decorative bosses. “I believe . . . in belief.”

“Master Guest—”

He squared on the archbishop. “Forgive me, Excellency. But these niceties get us nowhere. I have come a long way. What do you want with me?”

Courtenay slowly nodded and set his wine aside. He stood.“You are a candid man, so I shall be forthright with you. Th e Lollard heretics have made threats against the martyr’s relics.”

At last! Firm ground. “What kind of threats?”

“Letters. Rumors. All indicate that they wish to do harm to Becket’s tomb and remains.”

“May I see these letters?”

“Alas. I destroyed them. There were only two, and I took them as nothing but the anonymous mischief of a disingenuous rabble. But then there were rumors and incidents. Broken locks and petty thievery. It was only then that I began to take these threats seriously. And as you know, I am no friend to the Lollards.”

Crispin remembered. Ten years ago, Courtenay and Lancaster faced off like two cockerels in a barnyard fight. Crispin stood beside Lancaster as he was wont to do. Courtenay no doubt remembered Crispin from that occasion. Courtenay’s attempt to suppress the Lollards, and their attacks on papal authority and the doctrines of the Church, outright opposed Lancaster, who took it upon himself to support John Wycliffe, the Oxford theologian and the father of the reform movement, who was also the duke’s personal preacher.

“Then you believe it is the Lollards who seek to despoil Becket’s tomb?”

“Who else? They dare call the sacred shrine and others like it idolatrous.”

“They may hate more the fees charged to the pilgrims.”

Courtenay’s sharp glare replaced his earlier and more controlled demeanor. “It is just such talk, Master Guest, which produces violent rabbles. Do you suggest that the maintenance of such a holy place be solely on the poor church that is forced to house it?”

“Forced, my lord? Many a monastery would happily go to war to own such a profitable venture.”

Courtenay’s face reddened. “And you call yourself a son of the Church!” “Be at ease, my lord. I do not say I approve of such infighting. Can you tell me this does not occur within the Church?”

Courtenay’s breathing evened, and he gripped the back of the chair. His rings sparkled in the tinted light of the flames and stained-glass windows. “You are right, of course. Such does occur, and it grieves me to see it.”

Crispin sighed and took up his goblet again. “Tell me, then, how do you suggest I protect the bones.”

“That, Master Guest, I leave to you.”

“Then I propose that you post a guard on them day and night.”

“Naturally. But the letters indicated that there would be an attempt made at the beginning of the season. Which is now upon us.”

“And so?”

“My hope, Master Guest, is that you would personally guard the tomb.”

Crispin choked on the wine. “Me? Sleep alongside Saint Thomas?”

“I trust you, Master Guest. This is my charge to you.”

“My lord, I have no wish to play nursemaid to Becket’s bones for the rest of my days. I have lodgings in London. I have my life there.”

“Certainly I did not expect that you would give up all to spend eternity by a tomb,” he said. Except that by his tone, Crispin thought that this was exactly what Courtenay expected. “But I wish it guarded, and I will pay you well.”

“You have an entire community of faithful monks, my lord. Surely they can be expected to be obedient in this.” Courtenay was silent, and Crispin studied his tightening shoulders.

The archbishop left the chair and strode across the room to stand below a large crucifix. He rested his hands behind his back and stared up at the corpus, its limbs carved with care, showing stretched sinews and even scars from flogging.

“A monastery is a wonderful haven, Master Guest. I wonder if the layman can truly appreciate it.”

“I have seen it carve great and holy men within its confines.”

“As have I. But it can also cripple a weak man.”

“Your Excellency?”

“Master Guest, have you ever led an army?”

Crispin’s nimble mind tried to keep up with the archbishop’s more agile one. “Not an entire army. A garrison.”

“But you rely on the competence of your men to win the day.”

“Naturally. And their loyalty.”

“Their loyalty. Indeed. The battle cannot be won without it.”

“My lord, I am at a loss as to your meaning.”

He turned. His blue eyes were deep sapphires. “You asked about my monks.”

“Yes. The monks of the priory. This is their church.” He sensed Courtenay’s hesitation. “They are faithful monks, my lord, are they not?”

“They call you the Tracker.” Courtenay moved from the crucifix and returned to his table. He trailed his fingers along the documents piled there. He picked one up, glanced at it, and set it down again. “My treasurer and his assistant do much of the task of guarding the relics, but I must tell you an unpleasant truth.” His hand dropped away from the desk and fell against his robe. He raised those sapphire eyes to Crispin again. They burned with a cold fire. Crispin suddenly had a feeling of raw power emanating from those eyes, reflecting the true heart and soul of the man who owned them. “I believe one of my monks to be a Lollard heretic, Master Guest. I want you to root him out and bring him to me.”

 

Chapter 3

Crispin grumbled to himself all the way back to the inn. Tombs, relics, heretical monks. Sixpence a day wasn’t enough compensation.

Always better to talk out the problem. Where the hell was Tucker?

He pushed open the inn’s door and was stopped short by the press of pilgrims talking, laughing, shouting. The season had most definitely begun.

Crispin recognized most of them as the pilgrims he’d seen at the shrine. Th ere were the two nuns, one older in a black habit and one much younger in a brown veil and gown. They were talking to a priest, the round fellow in prosperous garb. Beside them but not with them was the well-shaped female of the merchant class he recalled from the shrine, talking animatedly to a short, stout fellow hoisting a beaker of ale, who looked to be a tradesman of some sort. He nodded his head and listened to her speech but his shuffling feet seemed to indicate he would rather be skirting away.

The other that Crispin had taken for a tradesman was a tall, lank fellow dressed like a middling merchant. He stood by the shorter man, but on closer examination he appeared to be alone and merely listening to the conversations of the others. He kept a surreptitious eye on two skulking men from the shrine who were still talking secretly to each other in a far corner. One was a thin blond man and his shorter, stouter companion.

And there, the wealthy Franklin from Becket’s tomb, replete with gold chains over his scarlet robes. He stood before the fire as if he owned it, warming his bejeweled fingers.

“Master Crispin!” Jack rushed forward, a beaker of ale in one hand. His normally pale complexion flushed red from spirits. “Look at the merry folk who are here! All pilgrims, and they have just lately come from London, too!”

Jack had probably never been this far from home, he realized, and he allowed himself a momentary pang of empathy for the boy.

“Cris! What kept you?”

He flinched. He couldn’t help it. He turned to see Chaucer bearing down on him. Chaucer clapped him on the back and then left his arm draped lazily over his shoulder. Ears warming, Crispin did his best to shrug him off by pulling Jack forward. “This is Jack Tucker,” he said curtly. “My protégé.”

Chaucer focused skeptical eyes on Jack. “Protégé?”

“He helps me solve puzzles. Catch criminals. Surely you must have heard—”

“Oh yes! The celebrated ‘Tracker.’ There’s a poem in that, I’ll warrant. Like a modern-day Robin Hood.”

“Put me in one of your poems and you’re a dead man,” he growled.

“Now, now Cris. Mustn’t lose that famous temper of yours. It does get you into trouble, doesn’t it?” He smiled, but not sincerely. He turned from Crispin to study Jack. “And so, Young Jack. Where do you hail from?”

“From London, good sir.”

“And pray, what family?” His gaze traveled well over Jack’s threadbare tunic with its worn laces.

“No family, sir. Master Crispin took me in from the street. I was little better than a beggar. Taught me to read and write, he did.”

“Taught you to read and write?” Chaucer stroked his light brown beard and aimed his eye at Crispin. “How democratic of him.”

Crispin put his hands on Jack’s shoulders and began to steer him away. “If you’ll pardon us, Geoffrey. I have business to attend to.” He didn’t wait for Chaucer to answer.

“What is it, Master Crispin?” Jack asked softly when they’d moved to a quiet corner. “What have you discovered?”

Near Jack’s ear, he said, “The archbishop fears the bones of SaintThomas are in danger of theft or damage. He wants me to guard them.”

“Blind me! What does he take you for? A mastiff?”

“I wondered that myself.”

“What will you do?”

“I don’t know. There is more—”

“The dinner will be ready anon. Can’t it wait till after we’ve eaten?”

Crispin scanned the room of chattering pilgrims, the warm fire, the inviting aroma drifting in from the kitchens, and considered. Maybe a quick bite would do him good. He could think better on a full stomach.

Just then the innkeeper called for the guests to be seated at a long table in the center of the room. There was a general sound of affirmation before shoes scuffled and garments rustled as they made their way around the table, seating themselves. The pleasant-faced innkeeper scurried from cup to cup, pouring wine from one jug and ale from another.

Crispin sat slightly away from the others while Jack stood behind him, trying for the appearance of a proper servant.

The priest scanned the room before his gaze landed on Crispin and he shuffled into place beside him, scooting closer with his cup in hand. “I am Father Gelfridus le Britton,” he said cheerfully. “You seem familiar with our Master Chaucer. He accompanied us from London, you know. Just a pilgrim like the rest of us.” He chuckled. “A noteworthy gentleman. A man of wit and good humor. The stories he told! He reminds me fondly of my days as a schoolboy. I read many a tale in those days. The poetry, the histories, the philosophers. Seldom do I get an opportunity to read suchlike anymore.”

“Nor do I,” answered Crispin. “Those books are long gone.”

“Owned them, did you? What I would not give for a fine library.”

“Your parish has no library?”

The priest cut a glance back at the tall nun and then brought up a guilty expression as if he had not meant to look at her. “Well, no. I am the nun’s priest, sir. Though the prioress’s tastes tend toward the classical, she finds it impractical to own books.”

“Perhaps she simply has no stomach for overindulgence. ‘A priory in a humble state can only boast in Christ, not in its riches,’ so the saying goes.”

The priest, a man of Crispin’s age though a little shorter and broader, adjusted the collar of his blue robe and straightened his cap. “That sounds dangerously like the opinion of a Lollard, sir.”

Jack leaned between them to pour wine. He offered some to the priest. Crispin noticed the boy’s cheek bulging with bread, which he was trying to chew quickly. “Not at all, Father Gelfridus. I am no Lollard.”

“What’s a Lollard?” Jack whispered, mouth still full.

Gelfridus turned toward Jack and tapped the boy’s crumb- dusted chest with a finger. “Don’t concern yourself with that lot,young man. You just follow your priests as you should.”

“Now, now, Father,” said Crispin. “‘All men by nature desire knowledge.’ And Jack is as hungry as the next man.”

Jack had managed to down his mouthful. He crooked his thumb in Crispin’s direction. “That was Aristotle, that.”

Gelfridus seemed surprised and rested an arm on the table.

Jack was proving to be a resilient pupil, but had yet to learn when it was appropriate for him to join a conversation. Still, it was a good excuse to bring the subject into the open. “Lollards, Jack, are those followers of John Wycliffe, a philosopher and theologian at Oxford—”

Gelfridus made a disgusted sound. “So you call him, sir. He does not deserve your charity.”

“Nevertheless,” he continued, aiming his remarks toward Jack, who had somehow secured an onion and was eating it with relish. “He denounces the influence of clerics and even the pope’s authority. He claims that Christ is the only pope and he further arguesthat the Church owns too much land, too many riches, and has too much power.”

Jack eyed Gelfridus in his new robes and rings but said nothing.

“Wycliffe found many supporters,” muttered the priest. “His staunchest is his grace the duke of Lancaster.”

“Lancaster?” cried Jack.

Crispin kept his eyes on Gelfridus. “Any man may take a long, hard look at the vastness of Church property and perhaps invent philosophies of his own.”

“Yes,” said the priest. “With one hand these great men pay lip service to the Church and at the same time plot its destruction. All for greed.”

“Not all,” said another voice.

Crispin turned his head and recognized the wealthy Franklin he’d noticed earlier.

“Master Crispin, may I present Sir Philip Bonefey.”

Crispin inclined his head.

“You have something to say, Sir Philip?” asked Gelfridus.

“Only that a man of property may have a better sense of excess,good Father,” he said taking a seat. “The Franciscans, for instance, preach poverty. They do not wear fine robes and ride fine horses, for the most part.”

Gelfridus rose in his seat. “Sir Philip! Do you presume to ascribe temporal laws to priests and clerics?”

“I presume nothing. I merely state—”

“Gentlemen”—Crispin opened his hands—“I am instructing this lad here on the finer points of Lollardism. Any notes you care to add should be done with a civil tongue. How is he to learn if all questions come to blows?”

Sir Philip looked at Gelfridus, and then they both looked atJack. The Franklin’s face broke into a smile, and he clapped his hand on the table. “Bless me, Master Crispin. But you are right. Instruct!”

“Don’t forget pilgrimages,” put in Father Gelfridus. “These damnable Lollards declare that pilgrimages are idolatrous.”

Jack turned to Crispin.

“That is so.”

Frowning, Jack edged forward. “But if his grace the duke was a Lollard supporter, then why aren’t you, Master?”

“I was not always in agreement with everything his grace professed. Though I find some of the Lollard doctrine intriguing.”

“And Eve found the fruit from the forbidden tree just as ‘intriguing,’ Master Guest,” said Gelfridus. “Remember, only a hairs breadth lies between rhetoric and heresy.”

“I do remember, Father.”

They all fell silent. The dinner arrived and the pilgrims readied their eating knives. The prioress and her young chaplain sat opposite Crispin, while Sir Philip Bonefey found a place beside the priest. The round woman with the gat-toothed smile sat beside Crispin to his right.

Jack remained behind Crispin, clutching the wine jug.

One last traveler arrived and fit himself into the bench. “God’s wounds,” said Crispin, smiling at the round-faced man with the rosy nose. “And what brings you, good sir?”

The man smiled. “Master Crispin!” He leaned over the table and gave the offered hand a hearty shake. “It has been many a day, sir.” He gestured toward the rest of the company. “I saw these good pilgrims on their way to Canterbury from my inn and I told the wife it was time I ventured there again myself. And so you see me now.”

Crispin turned to Tucker. “Jack. This is Harry Bailey, proprietor of the Tabard Inn in Southwark.”

Jack ducked his head in a bow. “A pleasure, good sir. God keep you.”

Servants came from the kitchens bearing platters of roasted pullets and haunches of lamb, onions in an almond milk broth,cheese, and loaves stuffed with nuts and meats.

He felt Jack tense behind him. This was possibly the grandest feast Jack had ever partaken of. But Jack appeared determined to play his role, and he served and cut slices of meat for Crispin as Crispin had instructed him—as he had done himself for Lancaster when he started as a page in his house hold.

With his knife, Crispin jabbed the meat and fed himself the generous slices. The spices and herbs blended together in his mouth. A full bowl of wine sat before him. For the moment, he was content.

The prioress picked delicately at her food, eating as daintily asa bird. The nun beside her did not quite have the same aplomb, but tried to mirror her prioress’s table manners. She lifted her horn cup to her lips and reddened upon discovering it empty.

Jack scrambled around the table and quickly offered to pour her beer. She took it without looking up at him. Crispin watched Jack detachedly until he noted the woeful expression on the boy’s face when the young nun would not acknowledge him. Jack put down the jug and offeered her bread. She shook her head and still would not raise her eyes. Jack lowered himself to the bench beside her and slowly reached for the meat.

Crispin thumbed his wine bowl and edged forward. “Madam Prioress.”

The Prioress raised her eyes but kept them carefully shadowed under a canopy of dark lids. “Prioress Eglantine de Mooreville,”she announced. “This is my chaplain, Marguerite de Bereham.”

“God keep you,” he said with a smooth nod of his head. “From which priory do you hail?”

“A small and humble one, Master Guest, not far from London.”

“Then you, your nun, and your priest have traveled some distance like the rest of us.”

She held a haunch of pullet vertically and sawed down at the flesh as she talked. “Though we have traveled far, it is well worth the journey and expense. I was most impressed by the martyr’s shrine today.” She sighed. “Such magnficence. Saint Thomas was such a brave and noble man. To stand up as he did against a king, his friend. Such a chivalrous man.”

“You speak of him most strangely,” said Crispin. “Not as a saint,b ut as a romantic figure in a minstrel song.”

“And why not?” she said, cocking her head. “We love our saints, we cloistered women. And we have no lover but God. ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for thy love is better than wine.’ There is no need for outward passion of two vulgar bodies. Let man love from afar and look upward. To Heaven. We must be blind to all else but the love of God.”

He flicked his gaze toward Jack whose eyes were glued to the young nun.

“I intend to make a special vigil at the church tonight, later after supper,” said the Prioress. “One must make the most of one’s outlay.”

“The Prioress is very thrifty,” said Sir Philip brusquely.

Crispin turned to him but the Prioress went on.

“Thrift is an important trait in a priory. I have my hounds and my garden. What more would I need? Abuses of discipline and money are for the world without. Is that not correct, Dame Marguerite?”

The quiet nun raised her face. Jack no longer appeared to be his table servant but the nun’s. The boy was quick to drop the food from his hand and fill her cup lest it be empty the next time she touched it.

She lowered her eyes. “My Lady Prioress is correct. I myself was raised under the careful guidance of my lady.”

“You were brought to the priory as a child?” asked Crispin.

“No, Master. I was born there. My mother was a servant in the priory. My lady was kind enough to see to my schooling and sponsored me when I begged to take vows.” She raised a crust of bread to her lips and carefully took a small bite. Jack pushed another piece of bread toward her, but she shook her head. He munched a pullet leg absently and kept a furtive glance at her beneath his shaded eyes. His lips murmured a sigh.

“By careful discipline tempered by the love of Christ,” said the Prioress, laying a hand gently on the nun’s, “we have built a family in proper order. All know their places, have their assignments,and find contentment to do so. We have just enough to sustain us. Fields, crops, animals. We are our own ark, if you will, floating on the seas of iniquity.”

“Your own lands, yes,” said Sir Philip tightly. He clutched his cup and leaned so far over the table toward the Prioress he was like to lose his balance. “Enough to sustain you, and that should have been quite enough!”

The Prioress showed no signs of distress when she raised her eyes. “Sir Philip and I are acquainted, as you may have supposed, Master Guest. Our dispute, however, has already passed the test of the courts.”

“It has not passed my test, madam,” said Bonefey.

“Verily, Sir Philip. Is there any point in discussing the matter further? The court decided in our favor. We had use of the lands, they were put to good service in our care, and they were henceforth deeded to the priory.”

“They were my lands! The Church poaching the land from a faithful man—”

“Faithful, sir, is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Do you infer that I am unfaithful merely because I will not willingly give ten acres of useful land to the Church?”

A strident female voice cut a blade between them. “‘For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’” All eyes turned to the lady at Crispin’s right. She smiled her crenulated teeth at him. “Greetings. We have not met. I am Alyson de Guernsey, from the great city of Bath. And you are Crispin Guest. A fine name for a fine figure of a man.” She punctuated her brisk discourse by eyeing him thoroughly up and down.

Crispin smiled and gave her a nod. “Mistress.”

“Oh, it is madam. But I’d rather you ‘mistressed’ me than ‘madamed’ me.” And she laughed heartily at her jest. “Five times a wife and five times a widow. Now that is discipline well earned,” she said, pointing a finger at the Prioress.

Madam Eglantine’s thin lips flattened to a line.

“You can have your celibacy,” Alyson declared loudly and stabbedher knife into a pullet, lifted it from the platter, and plopped it on her trencher. “But there are some meant for the marriage bed.” She winked at Crispin. “Though, back to my point—” She leaned over Crispin to aim her disarming finger at Bonefey. “My lesson is twofold. First, how much land does a rich man truly need? Recall the story of Dives and Lazarus and take heed. If the court gave it to the priory, then I’ll warrant it was land you had no use for. You did not even know that these lands were within your boundary. True?”

Bonefey said nothing. His mouth curled into a snarl.

“And two,” she went on, “that charitable use to which the priory no doubt puts this land will serve to send you to Heaven that much quicker, were you to have given it freely.”

“Instead,” said Bonefey, pushing both Gelfridus and Crispin back to lean closer to Alyson, “the Church stole the property from me like a thief in the night.”

“I daresay,” said Alyson, “with an attitude like that, there shall be adequate time in Purgatory for you. You’d best speak to Master Chaunticleer here. Bless me, but I believe it will content him to sell you your way out of the purging fires.”

“I do not sell,” said the man identified as Chaunticleer from down the long plank table. He was one of the secretive men Crispin saw earlier. Crispin surmised by the exchange that the man must be a Pardoner, a purveyor of Indulgences. “An Indulgence is a serious matter.”

“And an expensive one, too,” she said, elbowing Crispin.

Crispin forced his amused glance away from Alyson and continued eating while the arguments raged around him.

A pale young man Crispin had taken for a merchant watched Bonefey with unconcealed concentration, chewing his food with mouth open. The Pardoner, Chaunticleer, and the man with him finished their meal quickly and left the inn. Bonefey’s face became increasingly reddened only occasionally turning an eye toward Alyson and her pointing finger. The priest appeared ready to launch into a sermon. Chaucer, like Crispin, seemed fascinated by merely listening.

Harry Bailey stood up. “Friends! So much discord. Do we forget why we are here?”

A pause followed his statement, and then the noise began again as each one renewed his argument.

Crispin finally had enough of the food as well as the chatter and pushed away from the table. He made his farewells, wiped his knife on the linens, and sheathed it.

Jack finally recalled whose servant he was and scrambled to catch up to him just as Crispin passed over the inn’s threshold. Jack wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “What now, Master Crispin?”

 

“We’re going to the cathedral.” He and jack strode back up the avenue toward the cathedral.

“So you’re to guard the martyr’s bones and seek out the heretic amongst the monks?” said Jack.

“One presumably might have to do with the other.”

“Ah. And then we can go home.”

“Jack, we just arrived.”

Tucker fell silent and trailed slightly behind. They passed under the gatehouse and made the long walk down Palace Street to the west door. Chaunticleer and his companion had already set up shop, the Pardoner with his scrolls of papal remissions and the other with his trinkets and pilgrim badges. His table was also spread with an array of relics: cloudy monstrances, curled hair in glass vials, small boxes supposedly containing bones. The Pardoner, gesturing like a cockerel, admonished passersby with a thundering voice, “Repent and draw near! Do not put off your salvation for another day. For you do not know the day or the hour of His coming, that terrible day of judgment.” He aimed a finger at Crispin. “Repent, for ‘pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall!’”

Crispin gazed at him under drawn lids. “‘Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise.’” Chaunticleer snapped his jaw closed and Crispin smirked and ducked into the cathedral. “Was that Aristotle?” asked Jack in a hushed tone.

“No. Proverbs.”

He chuckled. “I’ll have to remember that one.”

Crispin glanced into the falling shadows of the arches and columns. They walked down the long nave past the quire to the other end of the church, ascended the steps to the Chapel of Saint Thomas,and stood before Becket’s shrine.

Even after the archbishop’s admonitions, no monks stood guard.

“God’s blood,” Crispin swore softly. He searched in the dimming light but saw no one.

The wooden canopy again covered the casket. Crispin strode up to it unchallenged. Four candle sconces stood at each corner of the shrine. Fat beeswax candles cast a warm glow over the steps and floor. Crispin ran his hand along the carvings of the base, until hen oticed Jack was nowhere behind him. “Jack?”

“Here, sir,” came the meek voice from behind a pillar.

“What are you doing there? Bring a candle from that chandler.”

Jack stretched up on his toes and plucked a candle as instructed. He crept forward and held the candle unsteadily, but the flame never flickered when he brought it up to the shrine. He moved Jack’s arm closer so he could better view the wooden base. Nothing amiss. All intact.

He left the shrine and found the pulley system that lifted the canopy. Releasing the lock he pulled on the wheel. “Tucker. Come help me.”

Jack trotted over and set the candle upright on the floor. He took hold of the wheel and pulled in rhythm with Crispin.

The rope groaned. With a great, creaking sigh, the canopy rose, bells tinkling. When it rose a foot above the casket, he told Jack tohalt. The brake held the wheel in position as he walked back to the shrine, running his hand along its top edge.

He offered a half smile to Jack. “Jack Tucker, meet Thomas à Becket.”

Jack swallowed. “He’s in there?” he whispered.

“Yes. What remains of him.”

Jack’s gaze roved over the casket. “Blind me. It’s like a palace.”

“Very much so.”

“That ain’t real gold, is it?”

“Gold and precious stones. Pearls, carnelian, sapphires.”

“’Slud! That’s a fortune, that is!”

“Indeed.” He ran a fi nger over a polished red gemstone. Knife marks. “Someone tried to pry out this one.”

Jack came closer and brought the candle’s light over the spot. He wiped his hand down his tunic before he stretched out his trembling fingers to touch the many scratches.

“A knife blade,” said Crispin. “But they are old. See how the polishing compound has accumulated within the scratches?”

“Aye. I do see.” He looked up at his master’s face.

Crispin worked his way around the shrine, inspecting all its precious stones. None were missing. “This is not the work of Lollard sympathizers. The archbishop called it ‘petty thievery.’ I’m certain he was referring to something else, though he was less than forthcoming on the point.”

“You said the archbishop is suspicious of his own monks. I thought they was supposed to be obedient.”

“A man’s conscience cannot be suppressed, no matter the circumstances.” His eyes were drawn to Prince Edward’s tomb over his shoulder.

“But to be a holy brother and threaten the relics themselves! That’s evil, that.”

“Perhaps.”

He left the tomb of Saint Thomas for the smaller tomb of Prince Edward and stood before it. He grasped the edge of the sepulcher’s lid and lowered himself to his knees. His eyes scanned the prince’s tomb and he smiled as he gazed at the latten knight, only the edge of which he could see from his kneeling position.

Jack followed him and carefully read the inscriptions, his eyes screwed up tight with the effort. “This is Prince Edward, Master Crispin.”

“Yes. I know.”

“You knew him, too, I suppose.”

“Yes. He was a fine warrior. He and his brother Lancaster spent much time in each other’s company.”

Jack ran his hand along the solid stone base with shields decorating its length. “If he’d but lived and been king,” he said softly, “you’d still be a knight.” “I might have been many things. But I would not have met you. Leastways . . . not below a gibbet.”

Jack shivered. “That’s true enough. God keep you,” he muttered to the latten corpus, then crossed himself before he lowered to his knees beside Crispin and drew silent.

Yes, had you but lived . . . But it was a fruitless thought. He hadn’t, and his son had succeeded him to the throne. King Richard was certainly no Prince Edward. Crispin raised his hand and caressed the uneven lid entombing the former heir to the throne, when a shout made him snatch his hand back. Crispin and Jack rose and turned.

“What are you doing? Come away from there!” Out of the shadows, two dark forms appeared and molded themselves into the shapes of monks. They ran forward, sandals slapping the stone floor, staffs waving in their hands. Jack moved in front of Crispin and drew his short knife. Crispin reached for his sword—an old habit, even though a sword hadn’t been there for years.

The monks postured with their weapons. Crispin held up his hands to show they were empty. “I am here under orders from the archbishop.”

One monk, the older one, lowered his staff. “You are Crispin Guest.”

“Yes.”

He tapped the other monk who reluctantly lowered his staff . The older monk’s tonsure stopped across his brow, his natural baldness blending with the barber’s work.

Crispin gently maneuvered Jack out of the way and the boy backed away into the shadows. “Why is the shrine left alone? Why is no one seeing after it? I walked in here completely unchallenged.”

The monk exchanged glances with the younger cleric, a red-nosed boy only a few years older than Jack. “The treasurer is supposed to be here, sir,” said the younger. “Look. Here he comes.”

The monks bowed to the treasurer as he approached and he swept them all with an arched brow. “What goes on here?”

“I am Crispin Guest. The archbishop—”

“I know what his excellency has done as concerns you, MasterGuest. Is it not permitted a man to accede to a call of nature?”

Crispin rubbed the back of his neck. “Of course, Dom.”

“Brother Wilfrid,” snapped the treasurer, addressing the younger monk. “Where have you been?”

The young monk bowed again to the treasurer. “Dom Martin wished for me to help him with—”

“I remind you that you are my assistant, Brother Wilfrid. Not Martin’s.” He gave Martin a scathing glower.

Martin’s face froze and he bowed to the treasurer. “In all obedience,” he said stiffly.

“Never mind. Cover that casket, Brother. And take your post. Friend Guest here trusts us not.”

“You know my task, my Lord Treasurer.”

“Yes, yes. We know it.”

Crispin gave the monk a cursory look and made a slow circuit of the chapel, noting windows, archways. He peered far into the dimness, looking for passages. “Brother Wilfrid, will you please stay a moment with my man Jack here?”

Brother Wilfrid’s small, dark eyes darted and found Jack in the shadows. He bowed to Crispin while still looking at Jack.

“My lord, will you show me the surrounds?”

The treasurer glared at Martin, who bowed and took his leave. Once his footsteps died and the shadows swallowed him, it was as if he’d never been there.

The treasurer gestured curtly and stomped toward the north ambulatory, not waiting for Crispin to follow. “The pilgrims enter here by this staircase,” he said, sweeping his arm out. “They must come through the nave past the quire gate. When the hours are devoted to the Divine Office, we lock the gate.”

“The quire is barred, but what of the aisles?”

They walked back the other way to the steps where the pilgrims exit. “The aisles remain unimpeded. There is a staircase to the roof of the Corona. The northeast transept has a passage, as does the northwest and southwest transepts. Of course there are two entrances for townsfolk, the west door and the southwest porch. AfterCompline, that way is also barred.”

“What of the cloister?”

“A locked door, near Becket’s martyrdom at the northwest transept, but only after Compline.”

“So the cloister door is open all day?”

“Of course. The monks must have ready access to the church. But it is impossible to get into the cloister from the outside without encountering three locked gates—locked at all times.”

“Sounds secure,” he muttered. The monk continued to glare at him. “Forgive me, Dom— I do not know your name.”

“Thomas Chillenden.”

“Dom Thomas.” He gave a slight bow. “Since I came at the command of his excellency I wonder why my presence vexes you so.”

“He does not need you. We are his monks. We can do his bidding.”

“Plainly, that is not so.” He didn’t know why he took such pleasure in saying it to the lugubrious monk, and he enjoyed the man’s enraged reaction kept under careful control. “Tell me,” he went on, “why is the priory treasurer assigned to keep guard of the martyr’s shrine?”

Dom Thomas tucked his hands beneath his scapular. “You have seen it. It is a treasure in itself. Besides, I requested this duty years ago.”

“Indeed. Why so?”

His eyes narrowed. “Because it is an honor, Master Guest.”

“Of course. Dom Thomas, since you know why I am here, can you enlighten me as to why the archbishop should be so concerned for the shrine’s welfare?”

“Did he not tell you?”

“I should like you to tell me.”

“What can I add to his excellency’s fears?”

“Details, Dom. For instance, his excellency spoke of petty thievery.”

“His excellency is mistaken. That had nothing to do with the shrine.”

“Forgive me, but I’ll be the judge of that.”

Dom Thomas glared. His mouth twisted as if trying to suppress unpleasant words. The monk inhaled and blew out a foggy breath. “His excellency bade me be obedient in this,” he said with obvious resentment. Yet he said nothing more.

Crispin drummed his fingers on his dagger hilt. “Well?”

“It was foolish. I do not know why his excellency even needed to be told. Some overzealous monk trying to worm his way into his good graces, no doubt.”

Crispin huffed a breath. “I’m still waiting.”

Dom Thomas aimed his gaze directly into Crispin’s gray eyes. “I’m coming to it. The keys to the cloister. They went missing a little over a fortnight ago.”

“And you didn’t find this significant?”

“They were also found.” He held them up. “Ecce signum.”

“I see only the proof that they were returned. Not to what purpose they were put.”

“What purpose? None. How could they be put to a purpose when they were returned and nothing was harmed while they were gone?”

“How long were they missing?”

“Two days. But as I said, nothing was disturbed, nothing was stolen, nothing is amiss at all.”

“You don’t seem to understand, Dom. Someone took them in order to make a copy.”

The monk’s lips parted. His eyes, so clear and sharp with accusation, suddenly glossed. “That . . . cannot be.”

“Such things are not unknown to me.” He turned back to look at the shrine. It was going to be a long night and he was already tired from the journey here. He released a sigh that blew a strand of fog into the cold chapel. “Does that key fit all three cloister gates?”

The monk was still lost in his thoughts. He handled the keys with a distant stare.

“Dom Thomas.”

The monk awoke, startled, and brought his gaze level withCrispin’s, though this time there was no mote of accusation in it. “Yes, all gates.”

“You shall have to call for a locksmith in the morning and have them changed. It is your only course. And then you must make certain that you do not let the new keys out of your sight.”

“No, of course not.” He worried at them, his fingers whitening over the metal.

“Tonight, I will stand guard at the shrine. Your monk will relieve me at midnight. Do you understand? When I mean stand guard, I mean directly at the foot of the shrine. And calls of nature are not allowed, I’m afraid. Bring a pot with you.”

The monk grabbed his arm. “You are serious?”

“Most serious, Dom Thomas, especially when sleep is concerned. I am weary, but I will take the first watch. By the time your monk relieves me, I hope I will have thought of a better plan, but for the moment, this is all I have.”

“I will have Brother Wilfrid come at midnight, then.”

“Very good. Make certain he understands he may not sleep.”

The irritation returned to Dom Thomas’s voice. “I understand it, Master Guest.”

“Good.” He turned to the shadows. “Jack, you may go along back to the inn.” Jack stepped uncertainly across the chapel, casting a glance at Wilfrid when he reached the stairs. “And Dom Thomas,” said Crispin, “could you bring me a chair?”

Crispin kicked back, leaning the chair against the wooden base of the shrine. “Just you and me, Saint Thomas.” His voice, even as softly as he spoke the words, seemed far too loud. Its echoes rolled into the distant corners, and finally died. The four candles about the shrine remained lit, and he looked up at the arched ceiling and the demon shadows frolicking there.

How were the bones to be protected if the monks could not be relied upon to guard the place themselves? If Dom Thomas and Brother Wilfrid were the only ones to be trusted, they would soon be too exhausted to continue.

He set his jaw. He wasn’t about to leave Becket’s bones in the hands of scoundrel Lollards who had no respect for the man—

A sound.

He snapped to his feet and cocked his head. Definitely the sound of two people.

He drew his dagger, crept to the edge of the shrine, and peered around the corner.

Shadows. And they were moving. He squinted into the gloom.The echoes played games with his ears, and it was almost impossible to tell from which direction the sound was coming, but he thought the noise emanated from the quire area. Damn. He’d have to leave the shrine to investigate. He looked back at the tomb. Though, should anyone try to interfere with the bones, it would make enough racket to alert him.

He crept down the chapel steps and steeled down the north ambulatory. There were candles burning in the church at all times, but their scant light did little to illumine the vast space. In fact, their small flames did more to confuse the shadows with flickering ghosts of half light. He veered to his right into the northeast transept. The door was shut tight. He proceeded on past the pillars of the quire in the north aisle, shifted around the scaffolding, and saw the shadows thrown against the wall ahead. Someone was at Saint Benet’s chapel, the spot of Becket’s martyrdom.

He descended the stairs and adjusted his grip on the dagger. He slid his back along the wall toward the archway. Two small fi gures in black stood silhouetted against a single candle flame. He stepped into the light and the two figures whipped their heads around.

White faces stared at him from wimples and veils. He lowered his knife. He’d forgotten. “Damosel,” he said, a little embarrassed.

Prioress Eglantine glided toward him. Dame Marguerite did not move. Her eyes were large with alarm. She lowered her gaze and hid her quaking hands within her cloak.

The Prioress gazed at him with practiced serenity. “Master Crispin. Skulking in the dark?”

“Forgive me. I am here at the bidding of the archbishop. I did not expect anyone else here at this hour.” He glanced at the windows. The sky was still pink, ushering in the evening. The late-spring light was only a precursor to the long hours of daylight expected in the summer months.

He remembered the Prioress had said she would return to pray after supper.

“If you are here at the bidding of his excellency,” said Madam Eglantine, “then I have no reason to inquire. Pray, do as you are bid. We will remain here.”

“Not the shrine?” he asked, looking back, though he could not see it at this distance and around so many obstacles.

“Today I have seen the shrine. But now I wish to spend time here, the site of Saint Thomas’s martyrdom. Such a blessed place. A holy man who gave his life for the Church. Do you know that the attack was so vicious, that his murderers sliced off the top of his skull and spilled out his brains upon the floor? Monstrous.” She recited as if dictating a shopping list.

Dame Marguerite flinched.

“Of course I feel compelled to be here,” the Prioress went on. “Many do not know it, but my ancestor, much to the shame of my family, was one of the murderers.”

Crispin’s memory clicked into place like cogwheels. He ticked off the names in his head and said aloud, “Hugh de Morville. An ancestor of yours?”

She inclined her head. “It is only mete that I should do penance for his heinous crime, here where it happened.”

“The sins of the fathers will be visited upon the sons,” he said. “Or in this case, the daughter.” He turned to Dame Marguerite, but as usual, she said nothing. “I would not take it quite so to heart, Lady Prioress. These events happened over two hundred years ago.”

“Yes, but the blessed heart of Saint Thomas beats as vigorously and courageously today as it did in those long ago days. I do not feel that any time has passed and erased the sin.” She said it with a great deal of relish.

“The murderers faced exile in the end and died abroad,” he pointed out. “All impoverished penitents, while you have made your place in the Church. I do not see that your own penance is mete.”

She smiled indulgently at him, as one does when a child says something naïve. “Surely these matters are only of concern to me, Master Guest.”

Crispin frowned, then nodded and drew back in an abbreviated bow. “Then I will leave you. I am keeping watch at the martyr’s tomb. I shall be at some distance, and so I will not disturb your prayers. I only ask that you tell me when you are leaving so that I may bar the doors.”

“As you wish,” she said with a slight bow of her head. She turned away from him to kneel on the stone. Dame Marguerite cast a glance back at him and sunk to her knees a little behind the Prioress.

Thus dismissed, Crispin returned to the darkness of the aisle and moved east toward the chapel.

When he took his seat again, the vague sounds of chanting as the nuns recited their prayers shivered along the colonnade below him. The sound played on his ears as a low hum, like the buzz of a hummingbird’s wings. He smiled at the notion and leaned back, crossing his cloak over his chest to keep warm.

A faint scent of incense mixed with the painter’s varnish tickled his nostrils. He gazed at the tombs around him, dimly lit by the candles, and glanced at the dark windows, their shapes and tracery pattern only discerned by reflections of moon and candlelight.

He didn’t recall dozing off. He only realized he had done so when he opened his eyes. Immediately he sat up and cursed himself. He listened. How long had he slept? He checked the windows. Darker than before. The moon’s light had moved across the chapel floor. An hour? Maybe more. What woke him?

He heard it. Steps, light, stealthy. And the murmurs. Th ose nuns were still at it. But it wasn’t their steps he heard, for the chanting hadn’t changed, wasn’t moving away or coming closer.

There was a pause, as if the world held its breath. Crispin had just enough time to feel a shiver run over his skin before the scream.It became a horrific shriek and went on and on, its echo rolling and meandering into every crevice of the church. Something metal clanged against the stone floor and footsteps scattered. Crispin ran.

In seconds he was down the aisle, over the steps. He wound through the forest of scaffolding and careered around the corner where the nuns were. He stopped short, astonished and horrified.

The Prioress lay facedown on the stone. A sword lay on the bloodied floor behind her. Dame Marguerite, spattered with the Prioress’s blood, stood stiffly with her fists clenched against her sides, eyes rolled back, an unholy scream issuing from her wide-open mouth.

 

Copyright © 2011 Jeri Westerson


Jeri Westerson writes the critically acclaimed Medieval Noir series featuring disgraced knight turned detective, Crispin Guest. The latest, Troubled Bones will be released from St. Martin’s Minotaur October 11. Read excerpts at www.JeriWesterson.com or see Crispin’s blog at www.CrispinGuest.com.

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