Authors: Susanna Gregory
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Historical
Susanna Gregory is the pseudonym of a Cambridge academic. Before gaining her Ph.D. and becoming a Research Fellow, she was
a police officer in Yorkshire. She has written a number of non-fiction books on architecture and travel as well as nine previous
chronicles of the mediaeval physician-cum-sleuth, Matthew Bartholomew.
Visit the author’s website on
A PLAGUE ON BOTH YOUR HOUSES
AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE
A BONE OF CONTENTION
A DEADLY BREW
A WICKED DEED
A MASTERLY MURDER
AN ORDER FOR DEATH
A SUMMER OF DISCONTENT
A KILLER IN WINTER
Published by Hachette Digital
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2004 Susanna Gregory
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
London, EC4Y 0DY
For Pam Davis
Cambridge, mid-February 1355
The bones were stored in a sumptuous wooden casket, which was studded with semiprecious stones and inlaid with gold. With
great care, Father William of Michaelhouse opened the lid and took out the satin-clad parcel that lay inside. He even removed
his gloves for the task, as a sign of his respect – no small sacrifice in the frigid winter weather, when the cold bit deep
and hard, even inside a fine building like the Church of St Mary the Great. He laid the bundle on the table and, with infinite
reverence, began to lift away the folds of cloth to reveal the object inside. His lips moved as he worked, offering silent
prayers to the relic that was said to be imbued with such great power. He stood back when he had finished, so the man who
had paid handsomely for the privilege could appreciate its full glory.
‘Is that it?’ asked Thomas Deschalers the grocer, acutely disappointed. ‘It looks … ordinary. And a bit dirty, if the
truth be known.’
‘It is the Hand of Valence Marie,’ pronounced William grandly. He was a grimy person himself, and did not care that the object
in his keeping failed to meet the merchant’s more exacting standards. ‘Named for the College near which it was found. And
have been entrusted by no less a person than the University’s Chancellor himself to be its guardian. The Hand is sacred,
and therefore it is only right that it should be in the care of a Franciscan friar. Me.’
‘I see,’ said Deschalers noncommittally, declining to enter a debate about which of the many religious Orders in Cambridge
should be entrusted with the task of looking after what was becoming an increasingly popular relic – among townspeople and
University scholars alike. He stared down at the collection of bones that lay exposed in front of him.
They comprised what had once been a living human hand. The bleached finger bones were held together by sinews, giving them
the appearance of a claw rather than something that had once been warm with life. On the little finger was a blue-green ring,
which Deschalers’s skilled eye told him was not valuable, although it was pretty enough. He moved to one side, and examined
the rough striations that criss-crossed the wrist, where a saw had been used to remove it from the rest of the body.
The grocer laid his own hand next to it. His palm was soft and his fingers free from the calluses of manual labour: wealthy
merchants did not toil with sacks and casks when they had plenty of apprentices at their beck and call. Then he looked at
the skeletal claw. By comparison, it was huge – and Deschalers was above average size himself.
‘Are you sure this belongs to the martyr?’ he asked doubtfully, wondering whether he had wasted a gold quarter-noble on the
private viewing. ‘I do not recall him owning limbs as massive as this.’
William was immediately defensive – and a little furtive. ‘Who else’s would it be?’
‘When it was first discovered, there were rumours that it was hacked from the corpse of a simpleton,’ said Deschalers, watching
him carefully. ‘Not the martyr. The tale was all over the town, and I am not sure what to think.’
‘Brother Michael and Doctor Bartholomew – both Fellows of my own College – were responsible for circulating those particular
claims,’ replied William, tight-lipped
with disapproval. ‘But you can see they were wrong. Of course the Hand is holy: why else would it be housed in such a splendid
box and shrouded in the finest satin money can buy?’
Deschalers regarded him warily, not sure whether the friar was attempting to be droll: even his newest apprentice knew that
a tavern’s most handsome jug did not necessarily contain its best wine. But then he saw William’s face, which was lit with
savage, unshakeable fanaticism, and realised the friar was quite serious. Deschalers knew it would be a waste of time to point
out that there were objects all over the country languishing in satin and surrounded by jewels, purporting to be something
they were not.
‘There was some suggestion that the martyr arranged for this “relic” to be discovered himself, while he was alive and still
in possession of both his hands,’ he went on cautiously.
‘Details,’ said William evasively. ‘The Hand is sacred, no matter who it came from.’
‘How can that be?’ asked Deschalers uncertainly. ‘It either belongs to the martyr or it does not – which therefore means it
is either holy or it is not.’
sacred, but it did not belong to the martyr,’ admitted William. He lowered his voice conspiratorially, and leaned close to
Deschalers, treating the grocer to a waft of breath that indicated he had recently eaten onions. ‘It belonged to another saint,
but not many folk know about this.’
‘Which one?’ asked Deschalers, beginning to think he had indeed wasted his quarter-noble. He shivered, and wished he had not
ventured out on such an inane escapade when the weather was so bitter. He wanted to be home, huddled next to a fire, and with
a goblet of hot spiced ale at his side.
‘A man named Peterkin Starre,’ declared William with some triumph. He raised an admonishing finger when Deschalers released
a derisive snort of laughter. ‘You knew
him as a simpleton giant. He drooled like a baby and took delight in childish matters. But he was more than that. God is mysterious,
and chooses unusual vessels for His divine purposes.’
‘Very unusual,’ agreed Deschalers dryly. ‘Are you telling me Peterkin Starre was a saint, and that the bones sawed from his
poor corpse are imbued with heavenly power?’ He wondered whether William would return his money willingly, or whether he would
have to approach the Chancellor about the matter. He hated the thought of being cheated.
‘I am,’ said William firmly. ‘That is the thing with saints: you do not know they are holy until they die and start to produce
miracles. Look at Thomas à Becket, who was just a quarrelsome archbishop until he was struck down by four knights in his own
cathedral. Now the spot where he died attracts pilgrims from all across the civilised world.’
‘You consider Peterkin Starre akin to St Thomas of Canterbury?’ asked Deschalers, startled.
‘I do,’ replied William with such conviction that Deschalers felt his disbelieving sneer begin to slip. ‘But do not take my
word for it: ask those whose prayers to the Hand have been heard and answered. They will tell you it
holy, and that it does not matter whose body it came from.’
‘I see,’ said Deschalers, regarding the bones doubtfully, and not sure what to think.
William was becoming impatient. Other people were waiting to view the relic, and he did not want to waste his time arguing
about its validity with sceptical merchants – especially when so many folk were prepared to make generous donations just to
be in the same room with it. He knew Deschalers was ill – he could see the lines of pain etched into the grocer’s face, and
the sallow skin with its sickly yellow sheen – but there was a limit to his tolerance, even for those who would soon be meeting
their Maker and would need the intercessions of the saints. Deschalers’s
life had not been blameless, and William thought he was wise to prime Higher Beings to be ready to speak on his behalf. But
he wished the man would hurry up about it.
‘Do you want to pray or not?’ he asked, a little sharply. ‘If you do not believe in the Hand’s sacred powers, then I should
put it away and save it for those who do.’
‘No,’ said Deschalers, reaching out to stop him from replacing the bones in the reliquary. ‘I was just curious, that is all.
Perhaps you could let me have a few moments alone? My prayers are of a personal nature, and I do not want them overheard.’
William drew himself up to his full height and looked down his nose at the grocer. ‘I am a friar, bound by the seal of confession,’
he said indignantly. ‘You can pray for whatever you like, safe in the knowledge that your words with God and His angels will
never be repeated by me. Besides, I cannot leave pilgrims alone with the Hand of Valence Marie. They may become over-excited
and try to make off with it – and then what would I tell the Chancellor?’
‘Very well,’ said Deschalers tiredly. He lowered himself to his knees, each movement painful and laboured. He hoped his plan
would work – that his petition would be heard and his request granted – because everything else he had tried had failed. This
was his last chance, and he knew that if the Hand of Valence Marie did not intercede on his behalf, then all was lost. He
put his hands together, closed his eyes and began to pray.
Cambridge, late February 1355
When he first saw the well-dressed young man sitting on the lively grey horse, Matthew Bartholomew thought his eyes were playing
tricks on him. He blinked hard and looked a second time. But there was no mistake. The rider, whose elegant clothes were styled
in the very latest courtly
fashion, was indeed Rob Thorpe, who had been convicted of murder two years before. Bartholomew stopped dead in his tracks
and gazed in disbelief.
A cart hauled by heavy horses thundered towards him, loaded with wool for the fulling mill, and his colleague, John Wynewyk,
seized his arm to tug him out of its way. It was never wise to allow attention to wander while navigating the treacherous
surfaces of the town’s main thoroughfares, but it was even more foolish when ice lay in a slick sheet across them, and a chill
wind encouraged carters to make their deliveries as hastily as possible so they could go home.
‘This cannot be right,’ said Bartholomew in an appalled whisper, oblivious to the fact that Wynewyk had just saved his life.
‘Thorpe was banished from England for murder. He would not dare risk summary execution by showing his face here again – not
ever. I must be seeing things.’
‘You will not see anything if you dither in the middle of this road,’ lectured Wynewyk, watching the cart lurch away. ‘Thomas
Mortimer was driving that thing. Did you not hear what he did to Bernarde the miller last week? Knocked him clean off his
feet – and right up on top of that massive snowdrift outside Bene’t College.’
Bartholomew grudgingly turned his mind to Wynewyk’s story. Mortimer’s driving had become increasingly dangerous over the past
few weeks, and he wondered whether it was accident or design that it had been Bernarde who had almost come to grief under
his wheels – both men were millers, and they were rivals of the most bitter kind. Bartholomew supposed he should speak to
the town’s burgesses about the problem, because it was only a matter of time before Mortimer killed someone.
‘Here comes Langelee,’ said Wynewyk, pointing to where the Master of their College strode towards them. ‘What is the matter
with him? He looks furious.’
‘Have you heard the news?’ demanded Langelee as he
drew level with his Fellows. ‘The King’s Bench has granted pardons to Rob Thorpe and Edward Mortimer.’
Bartholomew regarded him in horror, although Wynewyk shrugged to indicate he did not know what the fuss was about. ‘Who are
these men? Should I have heard of them?’
Langelee explained. ‘They earned their notoriety before you came to study here. Rob Thorpe killed several innocent people,
and Edward Mortimer was involved in a smuggling enterprise that ended in death and violence.’