In The Mysterium, a new installment in the "deliciously suspenseful" Hugh Corbett Medieval Mystery series by P.C. Doherty, Sir Hugh Corbett is ordered to investigate the murder of a Chief Justice in the King's Court.
February 1304--London is in crisis. A succession of brutal murders shocks the city as it comes to terms with the fall from power of Walter Evesham, Chief Justice in the Court of the King's Bench. Accused of bribery and corruption, Evesham has sought sanctuary to atone for his sins. When Evesham is discovered dead in his cell at the Abbey of Sion though, it appears that the Mysterium, a cunning killer brought to justice by Evesham, has returned to wreak havoc. Sir Hugh Corbett is ordered to investigate the murder. Has the Mysterium returned or is another killer imitating his brutal methods? As Corbett traces the ancient sins that hold the key to discovering the murderer's identity he must face his most cunning foe yet.
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P.C. DOHERTY is the author of several acclaimed mystery series including The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan, the Hugh Corbett medieval mysteries, and the Canterbury Tales of mystery and murder. He lives in England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1Botleas: a crime so serious, there can be no financial compensation'Archers forward, notch!' Ranulf-atte-Newgate, Clerk in the Chancery of Green Wax, raised his sword and stared across the sprawling cemetery that ringed the ancient church of St Botulph's Cripplegate in the King's own city of London. Ranulf was in armour, a mailed clerk, hauberked and helmeted. In one hand a kite-shaped shield was raised against the bowmen peering from those arrow-slit windows in St Botulph's tower. This full-square, sturdy donjon towered over the cemetery, an ideal refuge for the miscreants who had escaped from nearby Newgate. Ranulf felt exhausted. The chain-mail coat weighed heavy, his arms ached and the cold morning breeze was chilling his sweaty body. The helmet with its broad nose guard pressed down tightly and his cropped red hair itched. He stared across at his master Sir Hugh Corbett, Keeper of the Secret Seal, who was similarly armed, though he had not yet donned his helmet. Corbett's olive-skinned face was drawn, dark shadows circled his deep-set eyes and his black hair was streaked with glistening grey. He was so sweat-soaked he hadpulled back his chain-mail coif, and was staring fixedly at the church.'Sir Hugh, on your mark?'Corbett gripped his sword and stared around what used to be God's acre at St Botulph's but was now a battlefield. The dead sprawled under rough sacking that hid the gruesome sword and axe wounds to face, neck, chest and belly. Corbett closed his eyes and muttered a requiem for the dead. He should not be here in this slaughter yard. On this mist-hung morning he should be in his own manor at Leighton, sitting in his chancery chamber with his beloved books or walking out with the Lady Maeve. He opened his eyes and stared at the Welsh archers in their brown leggings, their Lincoln-green jerkins now covered in blue, red and gold royal tabards.'Archers, on my mark!' he shouted.They thronged forward, longbows notched, bearded faces beneath their steel sallets tense and watchful. Behind the row of bowmen stood a huge cartload of straw and oil waiting to be torched. From beyond the cemetery walls rose the muffled clatter of the citizens of London who had thronged to watch this deadly confrontation reach its bloody climax.'Sir Hugh, Sir Hugh Corbett?' called a clear voice.Corbett lowered his sword and groaned as Parson John, vicar of the parish, pushed his way through the thronging archers, holding a crucifix.'Sir Hugh, I beg you wait.' Parson John grasped the wooden pole of the cross more tightly and knelt before the Keeper of the King's Secret Seal. 'I beg you.' He lifted his unshaven face. It wasthin, haggard, the green eyes red-rimmed. 'No more of this. Let me talk to these malefactors.' He paused and ran a hand through his cropped blond hair. Corbett noticed how the tonsure was neatly cut, the fringe over the broad brow laced with sweat, the furrowed cheeks stained with dust.'Father,' Corbett crouched down to face him squarely, 'look around you. Sixteen dead here, more in the church, your own people cruelly slain. These felons are condemned men, rifflers who broke out of Newgate. They have slaughtered again and again, not only here, but yesterday in Cheapside, along the streets of Cripplegate and more elsewhere. Then there are the women they abducted.' He swallowed hard. 'At least their screams have stopped. The church is now encircled, it has to be stormed.' He saw tears in Parson John's eyes. 'I know,' whispered Corbett. 'These are hard times for you. Your own father's fall--''My father has nothing to do with this.''I don't agree,' hissed Corbett, his voice turning hard. 'Your father may well have something to do with it. My orders are explicit. Sir Ralph Sandewic has now retaken Newgate. I will storm the church, your church, and bring this bloody mayhem to an end.''Sir Hugh.' Ranulf was pointing to the top of the church tower. Figures could be seen darting between the crenellations; similar ominous movements could be glimpsed at the narrow windows. Corbett followed Ranulf and put on his helmet, he then stood up, ignoring the priest, who still knelt grasping his cross.'Mark!' Ranulf screamed. The mass of Welsh archers obeyed; their great yew bows, primed and curved, swung up. 'Aim,' Ranulfbellowed, 'loose.' A shower of barbed shafts, a cloud of feather-winged death, streaked into the sky. Most of the arrows clattered against the rough stone of the church, but screams and a body toppling from the tower top showed that some of the archers had found their mark. At Ranulf's orders more volleys were loosed, driving the defenders from the parapet and the various windows. The bowmen advanced. Fresh clouds of arrows shattered against the stonework. The great war cart was dragged forward, its pointed battering ram jutting out. The combustibles were fired, the oil, tar and ancient kindling roaring like a furnace as a group of sweating archers, protected by their comrades, pushed at the long poles, driving the cart down the slight incline towards the great double doors of the church. Corbett flinched as an arrow whipped by his face. He screamed at the archers to push harder. The cart lurched forward, flames and smoke billowing up. He roared at the men to let go and retreat from the few enemy bowmen who still manned the windows. The cart held true, trundling down the slope and crashing into the main door. As the sharpened battering ram wedged deep into the wood, flames roared along it.Corbett and Ranulf, protected by a screed of archers, now retreated out of bowshot. The Welsh kept up their arrow storm as the two man took off their helmets, pushed back their coifs and gratefully washed hands and faces in a bucket of rather dirty water. The captain of archers, Ap Ythel, brought blackjacks of ale and a platter of hard bread from a nearby tavern. As Ranulf chattered to the master bowman, Corbett ate and drank greedily, staring at the conflagration around the main door. He feltexhausted. He'd been in his chancery chamber at the exchequer in Westminster when the royal courier had arrived. The riffler leaders Giles Waldene and Hubert the Monk had been consigned to Newgate with at least two dozen of their coven, all victims of the sudden fall from grace of Walter Evesham, the chief justice. Corbett ruefully wished they'd been lodged in the Tower. Waldene and the Monk had been committed to the infamous pits, their followers left in the common yard, where Waldene's gang had clashed with Hubert's. The fighting had spread, other prisoners becoming involved. The Keeper of Newgate and his guards had proved woefully inadequate. The great prison yard had been reached and its gates stormed. The King's chancery had dispatched urgent writs to the Constable of the Tower Sir Ralph Sandewic, a veteran experienced in crushing riots in Newgate and the Marshalsea. He in turn had called on Corbett as senior chancery clerk, who had summoned Welsh archers camped near the Bishop of Ely's Inn.The escaped prisoners, ruthless and merciless, had fought their way along Cripplegate or escaped out on to the wild heathland beyond the walls, where Sandewic was waiting with his men-at-arms. The old constable had shown no mercy. Any prisoner caught was asked one question: 'Are you from the Land of Cockaigne?' Sir Hugh Corbett, for his own mysterious purposes, had insisted on this. A blank look or a refusal meant immediate decapitation. The severed heads of the fugitives, tarred and pickled, already decorated the spikes along London Bridge. Other felons had fought their way into St Botulph's yesterday evening, just as the compline bell tolled. Parson John had been surpliced, ready to chant the day's last praises to God, when they had burst in. The priest hadescaped; others were not so fortunate. Robbed and slain, they were tossed through the open door before this was sealed and blocked. Several women had been taken prisoner, and when Corbett and his archers reached St Botulph's, they could hear the screams of the unfortunates who were being raped time and time again. Eventually the terrible screaming had ceased, and Corbett believed the women were dead. Once organised, he'd launched an assault, which was savagely repulsed; only then did he learn that the escaped prisoners had also pillaged the barbican tower at Newgate and seized bows, arrows and all the armour of battle.'Sir Hugh?' Ranulf, red hair damp, green eyes in his white face bright with the fury of battle, was eager to finish this. 'Soon?' he demanded. 'Soon we'll attack?'Corbett nodded. Ranulf saw this as an opportunity to excel, to prove that he, a chancery scribe, was as valiant as any knight in battle. Corbett looked beyond Ranulf at the cart, which was now a blazing bonfire.'It's caught the door,' Ranulf murmured. 'Master, we are ready.'Corbett rose and followed Ranulf out into the cemetery, keeping to the trees and crumbling crosses of the headstones. They moved down the side of the church, where a group of men-at-arms stood waiting with a makeshift battering ram, a long sharpened log swung by chains from a wooden framework. Corbett stared at the narrow corpse door. It was undoubtedly blocked, but it was still vulnerable.'Listen.' He pulled the chain-mail coif over his head. 'Bring the ram up as quickly as possible. The felons will be gathering near the main entrance. There are no windows above the corpse door,and those to the side are narrow. We must force that entrance as quickly as possible.' The men-at-arms, all liveried in the arms of the royal household, grunted their assent.Corbett and Ranulf helped lumber the ram across the broken ground, squeezing past the funeral monuments. They reached the church without trouble. Immediately the ram was swung back, crashing into the corpse door so hard it began to buckle. Corbett quietly prayed that the felons would remain massed near the main entrance. The pounding continued....
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