Paul Doherty: Song of a Dark Angel

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Paul Doherty Song of a Dark Angel
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    Song of a Dark Angel
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Paul Doherty

Song of a Dark Angel

The sharp, cruel wind swept in across the iron-grey sea towards the white headlands. It caught the tops of the waves and spun the icy foam into white flecks like snow. Those who lived in the villages near the eastern shore pulled their cloaks close about them and edged nearer the fire. The north wind, the Dark Angel as they called it, was making its presence felt. Soon it would rise, turning into fierce buffets. The inhabitants of Hunstanton huddled deep in their beds and hoped the storm would exhaust itself before daybreak. The wind, however, sang on; it tossed the sand and brushed the hairs of the severed head fixed on a pole beside the bloodied corpse sprawled on the shingle and rushed on to tease and play with the corpse of the long-haired woman that swung from the scaffold on the cliff top.

The Dark Angel, singing its sombre song, was accustomed to such cruel sights: this was the Wash, the large, inland sea that thrust into the soft Norfolk countryside – a violent, changeable place with its sudden tides, treacherous whirlpools, mud-choked rivulets and crumbling cliffs. It had seen the landing of the Vikings and the invasion of the Danes and, in the old king's grandfather's time, had witnessed the destruction of a royal army and the disappearance of a king's ransom in treasure. The Dark Angel swept inland, leaving behind its macabre playthings. The woman still danced at the end of the rope; on the deserted shingle, the sightless eyes of the decapitated head continued to gaze into the sea mist which boiled and swirled before it, following the wind inland.

Chapter 1

A week later, on the eve of the feast of St Andrew, Apostle of Scotland, two riders thundered along the cliff-top path. They were determined to reach their destination before the grey November daylight died altogether. As they breasted the brow of a small hill, where the cliff path swung inland round the bay, the leading rider reined in. He waited for his groaning, grumbling companion to do likewise.

'For God's sake!' the man muttered. 'How long, master? My arse is sore, my thighs are chapped and my belly thinks my throat is slit!'

From the shadow of his cowled hood, Sir Hugh Corbett, Keeper of the king's Secret Seal and his special emissary, grinned as he blew on frozen fingers.

'Come on, Ranulf,' he urged. 'At least no snow has fallen and we'll be there within the hour!'

Corbett pulled his hood back. He looked away from his manservant, Ranulf-atte-Newgate, and stared out across the mist-shrouded sea which crashed and broke on the rocks beneath him.

'A cold, sombre place,' he muttered.

Ranulf pulled his own hood back and edged his horse alongside that of his master. 'I've told you this before, Master. I hate the bloody countryside.' He stared back across the moorland, where the mist's long, cold fingers were beginning to creep. Somewhere in the gathering gloom a dog howled as if protesting at the elements. 'I hate it!' Ranulf repeated, as if to himself. 'Where the bloody hell are we, Master?'

Corbett pointed down to the sea. 'We are on the Norfolk coast, Ranulf. In summer they say it's beautiful. Beneath us lies Hunstanton Bay.'

He pointed across the cliffs. Ranulf glimpsed a faint light winking and made out the outlines of a building.

'Mortlake Manor,' Corbett said. 'And there is the old Hermitage. Can you see it, Ranulf?'

Ranulf strained his eyes and made out the gaunt, rambling ruin, most of it hidden by a high decaying wall.

'Further inland is the village,' Corbett continued. 'And down there in the mist, probably from where that dog is barking, is Holy Cross convent.'

Ranulf looked where his master was pointing and then, beyond the convent, to the sea. If he hated the countryside, Ranulf-atte-Newgate, born in the warren of alleyways that made up Whitefriars, was terrified of the sea – its grey, cold expanse; the mist turning and swirling like a ghost, muffling and making more eerie the hungry, haunting cries of the gulls. The thunder of the waves on the deserted pebble-strewn beach; those lonely buildings, silent as death, nestling on the cliff tops.

'Where was the head discovered?' he asked. Corbett pointed down to the shore.

'There. High on the beach. The head was neatly severed from the body and placed on a small pole dug into the sand. Beside it lay the corpse.'

'Poor old Cerdic,' Ranulf said softly, blowing into his hands. He squinted across at his master. 'I knew him, you know. If ever a man rolled crooked dice it was him. He was such a villain he couldn't even walk straight, never mind look directly at you.'

'Well, he's dead now, murdered by a person or persons unknown. But what intrigues me is that there were no signs of scuffling on the beach. How do you account for that, eh, Ranulf? How could a young man as robust and strong as Cerdic Lickspittle have been taken down to a beach and had his head lopped off without a struggle? There are no footprints, of him or of his murderer.' Corbett bit his lip and pulled the hood back over his head. 'Mind you,' he observed drily, 'what I'd also like to know is what Lavinius Monck is doing here. Ah well, we'll soon find out.'

Corbett gathered the reins in his hand and urged his horse forward along the cliff path, making sure he never looked to his right at the sheer drop only a few feet away. Ranulf, still muttering to himself, followed suit. As darkness began to fall the mist grew thicker and Corbett shouted warnings over his shoulder for Ranulf to take care. Corbett reined in as he reached the gaunt, three-branched scaffold that stood between the edge of the path and the cliff top. He stared up at the scrap of rope hanging from a rusting iron hook.

'Is this where they found the second corpse?' Ranulf asked.

'Apparently,' Corbett replied. 'She was a local baker's wife. Disappeared from her home. The next morning someone found her swinging by her neck from the scaffold. An innocent victim executed where murderers are usually gibbeted.' Corbett turned. 'Now, who would do that, Ranulf? Who would murder a poor woman in such a barbarous way? He stared at the scaffold, which rose at least five feet above his head.

'I suppose she was murdered at night,' Corbett continued. 'But why here?'

He looked down at the base of the scaffold and dismounted, throwing the reins at Ranulf, as something caught his attention. He knelt and picked up a bunch of decaying wild flowers from the bare ground beneath the gallows.

'What's the matter?' Ranulf asked impatiently.

'Who put these here?' Corbett asked.

'Oh, for God's sake, Master, the poor woman's husband or her family.'

Corbett shook his head. He sniffed at the brown, rotting stalks.

'No, they have been here for weeks.'

'Perhaps the relatives of an executed felon,' Ranulf hissed through clenched teeth. 'Sir Hugh, for the love of God, I am freezing! I have lost all feeling in my legs and balls!'

Corbett threw the flowers down, wiped his hands on his robe, grasped his reins and remounted. 'Well, well, we can't have that, can we, Ranulf? What a loss to the ladies of London,eh?'

He urged his horse on. Ranulf stuck his tongue out at him and quietly moaned to himself about the buxom little widow – brown-haired and merry-faced, with the sweetest eyes and softest arms he had ever known – left behind in London. He'd had to give her up just because old Master.Long Face, riding in front of him now, had been ordered north by King Edward.

'Whose balls,' Ranulf muttered to himself, 'I hope are as cold as mine!'

He followed his master, who had now slowed his horse to a trot, fearful that it might slip or lose direction. The mist had thickened and the angry sea still rumbled and crashed belowthem. The ruins of the old Hermitage came into sight, mostly hidden by a high sandstone curtain-wall. Corbett caught the smell of wood smoke and the sweeter scent of roasting beef, which made his stomach growl and wetted his dry mouth.

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