Paul Doherty: The Straw Men

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Paul Doherty The Straw Men
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    The Straw Men
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    Creme de la Crime
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    Исторический детектив / на английском языке
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Paul Doherty

The Straw Men


‘Febris synocha: hectic fever’

Sir John Cranston, swathed in cloak, muffler and beaver hat, dug in his spurs and coaxed the great destrier, his old war horse Bayonne, closer to the scaffold, which rose like a black shadow against the snowbound countryside around St John’s Priory in Clerkenwell.

‘Do you recognize one of your friends, Sir John?’ A member of his escort, similarly garbed against the cold, called out.

‘I have no friends,’ Cranston replied over his shoulder. ‘At least, not here,’ he whispered to himself. He pushed Bayonne, who began to snort and paw the ground, nearer to the high-branched gallows. ‘I know, I know,’ Sir John soothed. ‘But at least there is no smell.’ Cranston lifted his considerable bulk up in the stirrups and stared at the frozen, decomposed cadaver, its head slightly awry, the thick, hempen rope strangling the scrawny throat like some malignant necklace. Crows and ravens had done their work, pecking out the eyes and all the other tender bits, nose, ears and lips. The corpse’s face was nothing but an icy-white, frozen mask with black holes; the rest of the shrivelled corpse had merged with the shabby tunic the felon had been hanged in. Cranston glimpsed the scrap of leather pinned just beneath the man’s shoulder. No one had bothered to remove it. Cranston did. He unrolled the stiffened leather scrap even as Bayonne, shaking its head in protest, backed away snorting, the hot breath rising like clouds in the freezing morning air.

‘Yes, yes,’ Cranston whispered, ‘we have seen worse, old friend. Remember that row of stakes at Poitiers. .?’

‘Now, what do we have here?’ Cranston peered down at the execution clerk’s bold but faded script. ‘Edmund Cuttler, felon, nip and foist, caught six times, branded twice, hanged once.’ Cranston smiled at the gallows humour, then stared at the pathetic remains of Edmund Cuttler. ‘Nip, foist, bum-tailor, pickpocket — poor old butterfingers caught at last.’ Cranston squinted down at the scrap of parchment and studied the date. Cuttler had been hanged four days before Christmas.

‘Well,’ he murmured, ‘just in time to join the angels, if he didn’t steal their haloes.’ Cranston crossed himself, pattered a prayer for the faithful departed, pinned the execution docket back and turned his horse’s head. Once again Cranston stared along the winding path which snaked north of the old city walls. A cloying river fog had swept in, thickening the dense mist which swirled over Moorfields. A heavy pall of freezing whiteness had descended, smothering sight and sound. Somewhere deep in the fog the bells of Clerkenwell Priory boomed out the summons to divine office, calling the faithful to prayer on this the ninth of January, the Year of our Lord 1381 in the Octave of the Epiphany. Christmas, Yuletide and the Feast of the Kings were long past. No more revelry, Cranston ruefully thought. The green holly with its blood-red berries had withered. No more Christmas feasting on a juice-packed goose or brawn of beef in mustard sauce. The jugs of claret had been filled and emptied. Cranston had danced a merry jig with his lady wife Maude, his twin sons, the poppets, dancing beside him, and Gog and Magog, his two great mastiffs, throwing their heads back to carol their own deep-voiced hymn. No, the feast and the festivities were certainly over. Soon it would be the Feast of St Hilary and the courts would open. Cranston would return to the Guildhall to sit, listen and judge over a long litany of human weakness and mistakes, as well as downright depravity and wickedness. ‘How Master Clumshaw did feloniously beat upon Matilda Luckshim and did cause her death other than by natural means. .’

Bayonne abruptly skidded on a piece of ice. Cranston broke from his brooding. He stared around the bleak-white wilderness then back at his own retinue, an entire conroy of mounted men-at-arms wearing the city livery under heavy serge cloaks. They sat, horses close together, quietly cursing why they had to be here. Cranston gripped the reins of his own horse, his fingers going beneath his cloak to stroke the pommel of his sword. When he first arrived here he’d found it boring, freezing cold, highly uncomfortable. . but now. .? The mist abruptly shifted and parted to reveal ruins which, some claimed, dated back to the days of Caesar. The Lord Coroner blinked, straining both eyes and ears. Had he glimpsed movement? Had he heard the clink of metal? Bayonne also became agitated, as if the old war horse could smell the approach of battle, see the lowered lance, hear the scrape of sword and dagger, the creak of harness and the ominous clatter of war bows being strung and arrows notched. Cranston quietened the destrier, fumbled beneath his cloak and brought out the miraculous wine skin, which never seemed to empty, took a deep gulp of the blood-red claret and sighed in pleasure. He pushed the stopper back even as he wondered what Brother Athelstan, his secretarius and closest friend, would be doing on a morning like this. ‘Probably preaching to his parishioners about the common good,’ Cranston whispered to himself. He breathed out noisily. Athelstan’s parishioners! Were they, or people like them, responsible for bringing him and the rest to wait by a frozen gibbet at a desolate, ice-bound crossroads for a delegation travelling as fast and as furious as they could from Dover? Was an ambush being planned, devised and carried out by the Upright Men?

‘My Lord Coroner.’

Cranston whirled around. The serjeant of the men-at-arms had pushed his horse forward.

‘Sir John, with all due respect, we have been here long enough to recite a rosary.’

‘And we’ll stay here for ten more,’ Cranston snarled, then shook his head in exasperation at his own cutting reply.

‘Come, come,’ Cranston lowered his muffler with his frost-laced gauntlet. ‘We are here,’ he stared at the ruddy-faced serjeant, ‘because His Grace, the self-styled Regent John of Gaunt, uncle of our beloved King, may God bless what hangs both between his ears and between his legs, is arriving with his agents the Meisters Oudernardes and their retinue. They are fresh out of Flanders. As you may know, they will be escorted by Master Thibault, My Lord of Gaunt’s Magister Secretorum, Master of Secrets and his mailed clerk, Lascelles.’

‘Sir John, what are they bringing — treasure?’

‘I don’t know; all I have been told is to wait for them here and escort them to the Tower of London.’

‘But they have enough guards themselves, surely?’

‘I thought that,’ Cranston replied, ‘but they apparently need more.’ Cranston stroked his horse’s neck. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Martin, Sir John. Martin Flyford.’

‘Well, Martin Flyford, what’s the poison in the boil?’ Cranston gestured in the direction of the city. ‘London seethes with discontent. The Great Community of the Realm plots to root up the past and build a New Jerusalem by the Thames; their leaders, the Upright Men, are devising great mischief.’

‘Sir John, they have been doing that for years.’

‘This is different. .’ Cranston broke off at a harsh carrying call from some bird sheltering among the ruins. Was that a marauding jay, he wondered, or something else? Bayonne was certainly nervous, while the other horses had become noticeably agitated.

‘They could be approaching, Sir John. I just wish I knew why we are really here?’

‘Because My Lord of Gaunt wants it that way.’ Cranston turned his horse, flinching at the whipping cold. ‘The Oudernardes are bringing something important, God knows what. Gaunt certainly doesn’t want them to go into London. We are to meet them here and escort them along this lonely track to the Tower.’ Cranston paused at a clink of harness. ‘Let us pray to God and all his saints that they come soon before our backsides freeze to our saddles.’ Cranston felt beneath his cloak and drew out his wine skin. He took a gulp, offered it to the serjeant then took it over to the huddle of men-at-arms, who also gratefully accepted. Mufflers were lowered, chain-mail coifs loosened, eyes gleaming in cold, pinched faces. They shared out the wine, laughing and joking.

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