The Tenth Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew
Cambridge, February 1355 – and as the worst snows in living memory begin to melt, a long-frozen body is revealed.
As the temperature gradually rises in the Fenland town, the passions of its citizens also emerge from the winter chill. A skeletal hand has become an object of veneration, viewed by some as a holy relic and capable of curing all ills, but thought by others to have come from a local simpleton. Meanwhile, two well-born citizens, who had been convicted of murder, have received the King’s Pardon, and have now returned to Cambridge showing no remorse for their actions, but ready to confront those who helped to convict them.
And there is a dispute between the local mills, regarding which should have the right to distribute the King’s corn. When Matthew Bartholomew is summoned to one of the mills where two people have been killed by nails rammed into their mouths, he and Brother Michael know exactly who to question. But as so often in the University city, nothing is as straightforward as it seems …
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. 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 quickly 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 be seeing 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.’
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.’
‘Edward Mortimer?’ queried Wynewyk. ‘Is he any relation to him?’ He nodded to where Thomas Mortimer’s cart had collided with a hay wagon, causing damage to both vehicles. The haywainer was not amused, and his angry curses could be heard all up the High Street.
‘His nephew,’ replied Langelee shortly. ‘But the return of that pair bodes ill – for scholars and townsfolk alike.’
‘So, it was Thorpe I saw just now,’ said Bartholomew. ‘But how did this come about? I thought they had been banished from England for the rest of their lives.’
‘I thought they had been hanged for their vile crimes,’ replied Langelee grimly. ‘Not merely ordered to abjure the realm. But they managed to convince the King’s Bench clerks that their sentence was overly harsh.’
‘Perhaps they are reformed,’ suggested Wynewyk. ‘It is not unknown for folk to repent of their misdeeds when they are sent away in disgrace. You may be worrying over nothing.’
‘We are not,’ said Langelee firmly. ‘They were dangerous two years ago, and they are dangerous now. I am on my way to discuss the matter with the Chancellor and the Sheriff, to see what – if anything – might be done to prevent them from settling here.’ He strode away purposefully.
‘He is exaggerating the seriousness of these fellows’ return,’ said Wynewyk, watching Langelee shoulder his way through the boisterous, cheering crowd that had gathered to watch the fist-fight between the miller and the haywainer. He glanced sidelong at Bartholomew. ‘Is he not?’
‘I do not think so,’ replied Bartholomew soberly. ‘I cannot imagine what Thorpe and Mortimer did to secure their pardons, but the fact that they are back means only one thing: trouble.’