The Fifth Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew
‘How could we have been so foolish as to imagine that we had left murder and intrigue back in Cambridge?’
It is spring 1353, and Matthew Bartholomew is a reluctant member of a deputation of scholars, priests and students making its way to the village of Grundisburgh. As fine weather lures hordes of outlaws on to the hazardous roads, riding to Suffolk is a treacherous undertaking. But the lord of the manor has offered to give Grundisburgh’s parish church to the College of Michaelhouse, and the Master has decided that such a princely gift is well worth the danger.
But when the benefactor begins to rush the deed that will legalise the transfer of ownership, Bartholomew senses that rural Suffolk is not the idyllic retreat he had been led to imagine. And when a young student-priest from Michaelhouse is found murdered in the church that was to become his living, Bartholomew realises that he and his party are threatened by dark forces abroad in the village. Compelled to investigate, he descends into a nightmarish world of superstition, conflict and heresy from which the tainted find no return …
Suffolk, April 1353
Twigs slashed at Alice Quy’s face and arms as she raced through the undergrowth, certain that the dog that chased her would bring her down at any moment. She tripped over a tree root, tumbling head over heels down a leaf-strewn slope, until coming up hard against the trunk of an old beech. She could not see the dog, but she knew it was behind her. She scrambled to her feet, sobbing in terror, and ran towards the river.
She knew she should never have come to the woods that night. It was true that she had been well paid, and that the money would help to buy the new cow her family needed, but money would be no use to her if the huge dog that snapped and slathered at the top of the slope were to catch her: she could not spend the gold coins that jangled in her purse if she were dead. She glanced behind, aware that the animal was beginning to gain on her, loping through the woods in a deceptively unhurried gait that was faster than anything two legs could achieve.
She had heard stories in the village about the massive white dog that haunted the abandoned plague village of Barchester. It was known to be a ferocious beast, given to tearing out the throats of its victims, and it was said that even to set eyes on the thing was sufficient to set a person on the road to doom and disaster. She tried not to think about it. She reached the River Lark, and waded across it, falling headlong into the cold water that surged around her legs. Gasping for breath and dashing the droplets from her eyes, she splashed through the shallows on the other side, and began to force her way through the trees on the opposite bank.
Suddenly, she was out of the woods that surrounded Barchester, and was at the edge of the neat strip-fields that belonged to Roland Deblunville, the lord of the manor whose land lay next to her village. She knew what would happen if he caught her trampling his barley, but she did not care. Her only concern was to escape the white dog, the hot breath of which she could almost feel on the back of her neck as she left the trees and began sprinting across the ploughed earth.
It was a dark night, and the moon was obscured by a thick covering of cloud. She stumbled over a particularly deep furrow and fell, grazing her elbows and knees on the stony soil. She clambered upright and plunged on, too frightened to look behind to see if the dog was still there. The ground was becoming more uneven, and she fell again almost immediately. This time, she did not rise, but lay on the ground, weeping with fear and exhaustion.
Gradually, as she lay motionless on the cold earth, her breathing returned to normal, the thudding of her heart subsided, and the blind terror began to recede. She had escaped! Scarcely daring to believe her luck, she relaxed her tense muscles, and sat up to peer around. She could see nothing in the dark, but it seemed as though her prayers had been answered, and that the dog had abandoned the chase and allowed her to live. Almost dizzy with relief, she climbed unsteadily to her feet, and started to stumble away before Master Deblunville or his men caught her.
She had not taken more than a few faltering steps, when she heard a noise behind her. Heart pounding again, she looked around her wildly, trying to penetrate the velvety blackness. She could see nothing, but the sound was there sure enough – soft, slithering footfalls as someone or something inched its way towards her, slowly and carefully like a wolf stalking its prey.
Was it the dog that approached so stealthily? Or was it one of Deblunville’s guards, slinking up behind a trespasser on his lord’s lands? Alice was almost to the point where she did not care. She started to run, but her legs were too weak to carry her, and she fell on to her knees. The slithering was closer now. Desperately, she tried to crawl, oblivious to the sharp stones that cut into her hands and legs.
It was hopeless. She could hear breathing, slow and even. She was almost paralysed with terror, and collapsed in a heap on the ground, shuddering and aware that the footsteps were coming ever closer. And then something reached out and touched her shoulder.
Alice Quy found she was unable to do so much as flinch: fright had finally paralysed her, like a deer caught in the light of a hunter’s flaring torch. She felt herself rolled onto her back. She did not look at her captor, but gazed up at the black sky with eyes that were fixed and dilated with fear.