The Third Sir Geoffrey Mappestone Mystery
Geoffrey finds that the political infighting and back-stabbing that he had experienced in the Holy Land is but child’s play in Henry I’s England.
Southampton, 1101: Sir Geoffrey Mappestone and his loyal friend Roger seek passage on one of the many ships due to sail to Normandy and then on to the Holy Land. The two knights have been away from the Crusade too long, and are itching to get back to the action.
But peculiar things have been happening in the harbour town, and it soon becomes evident that someone is trying to keep Geoffrey and Roger from boarding one of the ships. When Geoffrey’s dim-witted servant is killed by a deadly arrow that was clearly meant for the knight himself, Sir Geoffrey’s fury is such that he would do anything to find the murderer.
It is not long before the many-pronged mystery extends to include Roger’s father, Ranulph Flambard, the powerful Bishop of Durham, who the year before had been imprisoned in the Tower of London by the new King, Henry I, but had subsequently escaped to Normandy. Can Flambard’s power protect Roger and Geoffrey, or will it further endanger them?
April 1097, Durham
It was often said that if a wicked man had the temerity to touch the sacred relics of one of God’s saints, he would be consumed by holy fire and doomed to suffer the torments of Hell for eternity. Brother Wulfkill did not know whether that was true, but he did not intend to find out. When he handled the bones of long-dead martyrs, he wore gloves and always fortified himself with prayers and incantations.
The reliquary containing the remains of St Balthere lay in front of him, and he used a stick to undo the clasp and flip back the lid. He had expected to see bones, perhaps wrapped in fragments of rotting silk, and gaped in surprise when he saw the withered remnants of a large coiled snake. He crossed himself, wondering whether the very act of opening the casket had caused the saint to express his anger by turning himself into the hideous object that now occupied it. With mounting fear, he quickly slammed the lid closed.
After a few prayers, during which there was no indication that he was about to be seized by the Devil, Wulfkill summoned enough courage to look inside the casket again. Taking a deep breath, he pushed the lid open a second time, cringing in anticipation of thunder and fury from an enraged God. But nothing happened. The snake was still there, as dead and dry as leaves in winter. Wulfkill sat back on his heels, and pondered what to do next.
He had been paid – handsomely – to steal the bones and leave them in a predetermined spot for someone else to collect. Now Balthere was unavailable, Wulfkill was in trouble. He had already spent some of the payment he had received on a new roof for his sister’s house and to buy medicine for the poor. But he doubted whether the men who had paid him would care that these were worthy causes: they would demand Balthere or they would want their money back. And it appeared as though Wulfkill would be able to provide neither.
A crafty look came over his face as a solution occurred to him. The claim that instant death was the fate of those who touched the bones of a saint might would be his protection: he would wrap the snake in the sack he had brought and say, quite truthfully, that he had removed the contents of the reliquary. He was a monk, and no one would doubt his word when he declared that he had not inspected what was inside the sack because he feared for his immortal soul. Everyone knew religious men paid heed to the kind of stories that promised eternal damnation, and Wulfkill might yet escape blame when the men who paid him realized he did not have what they wanted.
Quickly, he swallowed his revulsion, reached inside the casket and grabbed the withered corpse. It gave a papery crackle as he touched it, and white bone gleamed through parts where the skin had rotted away. Wulfkill stuffed it inside his sack and secured it with a piece of twine.
Aware that time was passing, Wulfkill closed the lid and eased the reliquary back into its niche in the high altar. With a dusty hand he rubbed away evidence that it had been moved, then walked towards the door. Of the whole venture, the most risky part was where he might be spotted by a parishioner, leaving his church in the depths of the night with a bulging sack over his shoulder.
But it was very late, and the city was silent in sleep. Even in winter, there was work to be done in the fields, and the folk who lived in the seedy shacks nearby were too weary to spend their nights watching the comings and goings of others at the witching hour. Wulfkill left the church unseen, and hurried towards the river to begin the long walk to the agreed hiding place.
It was nearly dawn by the time he approached the spot where the men had ordered him to leave Balthere. He began to relax, knowing the ordeal was almost over, and that he would soon be able to retrace his steps and spend the rest of the day dreaming about how he would use the remainder of his wages. He had just imagined himself buying a position as house priest to some undemanding widow, when he became aware that he was not alone. He spun around in alarm, trying to see whether he had been followed.
There was nothing to see. But when he resumed walking again there was a sharp crack followed by a thud, and he felt something strike him in the chest. It was not a hard punch, and it did not even make him stagger. Yet, when he glanced down, there was a crossbow bolt protruding from his ribs. He was just berating himself for not realising sooner that he would never be allowed to live after what he had done, when he hit the ground. He died where he fell, and shadowy figures emerged from the nearby trees to take possession of the bundle he carried.