The Fourth Sir Geoffrey Mappestone Mystery
King Henry I draws an unwilling Sir Geoffrey further into his own intrigues – and into the danger that accompanies them.
March 1102, and Robert de Bellême, the scheming, dangerous Earl of Shrewsbury, is summoned to appear before King Henry’s Easter Court. Bellême must answer for siding with Henry’s older brother, the Duke of Normandy, in an attempt to steal the throne.
Meanwhile, in the crowded and dangerous streets of Southwark, south of the river Thames, Crusader Knights Sir Geoffrey Mappestone and Sir Roger of Durham witness a murder in a disreputable inn. But the victim is not just any man – he is Bellême’s illegitimate nephew, who had apparently been holding a meeting with two mysterious men. In fact, it turns out that the inn has been used for many meetings of the earl’s spies, and there are plans afoot to obtain a terrible weapon to use against the King, one that Geoffrey and Roger remember with a terrible fear from the Siege of Jerusalem – Greek Fire.
Thrust into the middle of a devious plot, solving the murder is only the first step in uncovering the treasonous plot against the King.
London, March 1102
Sir Geoffrey Mappestone and Sir Roger of Durham were experienced and heavily armed Norman knights, yet both felt uneasy as they made their way through the streets of Southwark towards the London Bridge. It was nearing dusk, and the narrow alleys were alive with characters who were never seen in daylight hours – robbers who stalked their prey in the darkness, sharp-faced prostitutes who enticed men into dimly lit taverns for the contents of their purses, and fallen priests who had prospered in the lax reign of William Rufus with their black arts. Rufus’s successor, King Henry, was not so tolerant, and peccant priests were obliged to hide, to emerge only when the sun had set and they would not be recognized and pointed out to the King’s spies.
Geoffrey knew the London Bridge closed at dusk, sealing Southwark and its shadowy activities from the more prosperous city of London, which sprawled along the opposite side of the River Thames. He pressed his knees into the sides of his great warhorse to urge it to walk faster, reluctant to linger in a place where he, Roger and their three men would not be welcome. It was not long since the Conqueror had invaded England and made Saxons inferior subjects in their own country, and the defeat still rankled. Geoffrey sensed there were many Southwark night-folk who would relish an opportunity to kill a Norman knight, steal his horses and plunder his saddlebags. His black and white dog whimpered uneasily, and Geoffrey knew how it felt.
The daylight was fading fast, showing how short a March day could be. It was not yet five o’clock, but shadows lay thick and black across the streets, and lights burned in the houses of those wealthy enough to afford a lamp and fuel. It began to rain, too, and the mottled clouds that slouched overhead played their own part in bringing an early dusk. Gradually, the occasional drop became a pattering downpour, blown in spiteful, sleety flurries by a chill north wind.
‘We should find an inn,’ said Roger, running a thick finger around the neckline of his cloak, sodden from where water had run in rivulets from his conical helmet. He glanced around him. ‘It is not pretty here, but I have slept in worse places. We can cross the bridge tomorrow at dawn and still be in time to obey your summons from the King.’
‘No,’ said Geoffrey, thinking that if Roger had stayed in worse than Southwark, then he must have graced some very insalubrious towns with his presence. ‘It is not safe.’
‘Not safe?’ scoffed Roger. ‘We are knights, armed with the finest steel gold can buy, and with Crusaders’ crosses on our surcoats that tell people we are Jerosolimitani – those who freed Jerusalem from the infidel two years ago. Who do you think will harm us?’
‘This is different,’ argued Geoffrey, who knew that while the residents of Southwark were unlikely to engage them in open battle, they might well fire arrows from dark alleys or abandoned houses.
‘Rubbish!’ declared Roger uncompromisingly. ‘No one would dare.’
A slithering sound made Geoffrey tense, hand on the hilt of his sword as he scanned the street for danger. But there was nothing to see. He looked up to where thatched roofs formed a jagged margin to the thin strip of grey sky above, and thought Roger a fool to be complacent. Neither they nor their servants carried much of value, but their cloaks and armour were of good quality, and their warhorses expensive and well-trained. They were certainly not beyond the ambitions of an opportunistic thief who was handy with a bow.
Ahead lay an inn, which illuminated the dirty street with slivers of light escaping through cracks in its window shutters. A sign above the door swung back and forth, creaking loudly enough to be audible over the hiss of sleet and the sounds of drunken conversation coming from inside the tavern.
‘The Holy Hero,’ said Roger squinting at the sign. It depicted an unhappy-looking Crusader, whose head appeared to be coming away from his body. Words were scrawled underneath, which meant nothing to the illiterate Roger. ‘I have had enough of traipsing in the wet for tonight, and we are too late to cross the bridge anyway. We will stay here.’
‘We will not,’ said Geoffrey, whose ability to read made most of his fellow knights regard him with rank suspicion, Roger included. ‘It is called the Crusader’s Head and the sign shows your “hero” being decapitated by a Southwark whore. It is not the kind of place that would welcome us.’
‘I agree,’ said Geoffrey’s sergeant, Will Helbye, edging his horse forward so he could speak. ‘I do not like the look of it, either.’
Helbye, a grizzled veteran in his late fifties, had been in Geoffrey’s service for many years, and it was well past the time when he should have retired to his home on the Welsh borders. But Helbye did not want to be a farmer, and Geoffrey supposed he intended to remain a soldier until he either was killed in battle or dropped dead in his saddle.
Geoffrey’s squire, Durand, nodded agreement, but Durand was fussy and cowardly, and Geoffrey seldom took any notice of his opinions. Durand was old for a squire, older than Geoffrey himself, and was a neat, slender man with a head of long, golden hair. Geoffrey had been amused at first when Durand had been mistaken for a maiden from behind, but one or two misunderstandings over his sex had turned violent, and he quickly learned that his squire’s appearance was more of a liability than a source of humour.
‘It not only smells, but I just saw a whore go inside,’ said Durand with a shudder that had his companions regarding him warily. Durand’s disapproval of prostitutes extended to women in general, which the others found difficult to understand.
‘It is perfectly respectable,’ argued Roger. ‘My horse is lame and it is time we stopped. Geoffrey does not have meet the King until noon tomorrow, so we do not have to cross the river tonight.’
Geoffrey understood his friend’s reluctance to continue travelling when the prospect of a warm bed beckoned. They had been in the saddle since dawn, and Roger was ready for a rest, particularly in a tavern well supplied with prostitutes and ale.
Geoffrey surveyed the Crusader’s Head warily, considering his options. It was one of the largest taverns on the south bank, and comprised wattle-and-daub walls and a thickly thatched roof. It had been extended and rebuilt more than once, because the different parts of it did not sit well together and formed a complex jumble of windows and walls. Stains seeped from the oils that protected its timbers, and its roof was covered in moss and rot.
As he hesitated, Geoffrey became aware of a strange smell lurking below the stench of sewage and filth that coated the street. It was acrid and somehow dangerous, and vague memories clawed at the back of his mind. It was an aroma he had encountered before, but could not place where or when. He identified the warm, rotten stink of sulphur and the sharper scent of something alkaline, and wondered what sort of ale the landlord served to his patrons.
It did not take many moments for him to conclude that Roger was wrong, and that the Crusader’s Head was not the sort of place he and his companions should patronize. He was about to ride on when there was a yell from one of the building’s upper windows. He glanced up just in time to see something large drop out, almost directly above him. He raised one arm instinctively to ward off the plummeting mass, but it never reached him. Instead, it stopped just above his head, accompanied by an unpleasant snapping sound.
Durand gave a shrill screech of fright and promptly lost control of his pony, while Geoffrey’s dog barked furiously and began to dart in tight circles around the horses’ legs.
‘It is a man!’ Durand babbled, pointing at the bundle that swung back and forth with rhythmic creaking sounds. ‘And he is dead!’