The Sword of Shame (Historical Mystery Series)

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9780743285452: The Sword of Shame (Historical Mystery Series)
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The Latin inscription carved on the gleaming blade read He who lives in falsehood slays his soul; he who lies, his honor.” If only they had known how true those words would prove to be. The Sword of Shame was lovingly crafted by a Saxon swordsmith shortly before the Norman invasion, and its constant companions are treachery and deceit. From the Norman Conquest of 1066, to an election-rigging scandal in 13th-century Venice, to the bloody battlefield of Poitiers in 1356 at the heart of every treasonous plot, every murder and betrayal, is the malign influence of the cursed sword. And as it passes from owner to owner, ill-fortune and disgrace befall all who wield the deadly blade. The Medieval Murders are Philip Gooden; Susanna Gregory, author of the Matthew Bartholomew series; Michael Jecks, author of the Templar series; Bernard Knight, author of the Crowner John series; and Ian Morson, author of the Falconer mystery series.

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About the Author:

Bernard Knight, a former Home Office pathologist, is the author of the acclaimed Crowner John series. Former police officer Susanna Gregory's novels feature Matthew Bartholomew, a C14th Cambridge physician. Karen Maitland is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling C14th mysteries Company of Liars and The Owl Killers. Philip Gooden writes Shakespearean murder mysteries. Ian Morson is the author of the Oxford-based Falconer series.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ACT ONE

Exeter, April 1195

There was a thunderous crash as the roof fell in and a fountain of sparks erupted into the night sky. The air became filled with specks of black ash and fragments of burning straw floated from the flaming thatch of the cottage. With a crackling roar, Gwyn's home of twelve years was destroyed in as many minutes.

The big Cornishman stood impotently in the road outside, watching the destruction in company with his neighbours, who although sympathetic to his loss, were more concerned over the threat to their own roofs by the flying sparks. They had carried leather buckets of turbid water from the well, but there was nothing they could do to save the little building, made of wood-framed wattle plastered with cob -- a mixture of clay, straw and dung.

The villagers of St Sidwell, a hamlet just outside Exeter's city walls, had helped Gwyn of Polruan to save what he could of the family's possessions, few that they were, but most of what was in the single-room had gone up in flames. In the plot behind, the hut that his wife Agnes used for her cooking was emptied before it also fell prey to the flying embers -- and their three goats, the fowls and a pair of pigs were also taken to safety in a nearby croft.

'How did it start, Gwyn?' asked the man from next door, a mournful fellow who always stank, as he worked in the tannery.

'That bloody roof again! A chunk of withies and straw as big as my head fell down into the firepit. By the time the smoke woke me up, it was too late!'

The thatch had been laid on woven hazel withies supported by the rafters, always a hazard in dwellings where the fire was in the centre of the floor beneath.

'Thank God that Agnes and the boys weren't here,' said the tanner, relishing the drama that was enlivening the humdrum life of the village.

'Nothing but damned trouble, this week,' grunted Gwyn. 'Both lads are sickening for something, so she took them down to stay with her sister in Milk Lane. She's good with herbs and potions and suchlike.'

As they spoke, the front wall fell in with a crash and fresh streamers of fire spewed up into the night sky.

'What's our landlord going to say about losing his house?' asked another neighbour with ill-concealed satisfaction. He rented his own dwelling from the same man, the owner of several fulling-mills on the river, which processed raw wool for the spinners and weavers of the city.

'Sod him, the tight-fisted bastard!' growled Gwyn. 'If he won't mend a rotten roof, he has to put up with the consequences.'

The tanner nudged him. 'Talk of the devil! Here he is.'

The fire made the midnight scene as bright as day and in its glare, they saw a dark-haired man hurrying towards them, his whole demeanour suggesting pent-up anger.

'What have you done to my house, you Cornish savage?' he yelled as he came close. 'This is all your fault!'

Though Gwyn, like many large men, was normally of a placid nature, this unjust accusation coming so soon after the loss of his home, made him lose his temper.

'Don't give me that, Walter Tyrell!' he boomed. 'Your lousy roof collapsed on to my fire. God knows I've asked you often enough to get it mended!'

A shouting match soon developed, each man vociferously denying the claims of the other. Surrounded by a circle of neighbours, whose sympathies were totally with Gwyn, the pair squared up to each other, as red-faced as the fire behind them. The two antagonists were as unlike as could be imagined. Gwyn of Polruan was a huge, ginger-haired giant, with long moustaches of the same hue hanging down each side of his chin. Walter Tyrell was of average height, but looked small alongside the coroner's officer. About forty years old, he was coarsely handsome, with dark wavy hair and a rim of black beard around his face. Where Gwyn wore a shabby leather jerkin over his serge breeches, hastily pulled on before he escaped from the burning house, the fuller had a long tunic of blue linen with expensive embroidery around the neck and an ornate belt of embossed leather.

'You'll pay for this, you drunken oaf!' yelled Tyrell, his anger fuelled by Gwyn's refusal to defer to what he considered a social superior. 'No doubt you were too full of ale to bank down your fire before you fell unconscious with drink!'

This was totally unjust, for though Gwyn was as fond of ale as the next man, he had a prodigious capacity and had never been seen to be obviously drunk. In addition, though he often stayed in Rougemont Castle overnight, drinking and playing dice with his soldier friends, this particular evening he had come home before the city gates closed at curfew, to feed his animals and worry about the sickness that was afflicting his two young sons.

'Pay for it?' he snarled at his insolent landlord. 'I've been paying for this pox-ridden slum for a dozen years! At four pence a week, I could have built a mansion in that time!'

As the average wage was only two pence a day, this was an appreciable sum, but Tyrell's unreasonable wrath was now in full flow.

'You'll pay me five pounds towards the cost of rebuilding -- or I'll take you to the sheriff's court for judgment. And he's a good friend of mine!'

Gwyn's blue eyes goggled at the thought of such a huge sum.

'You're bloody mad, Tyrell! Where would I get five pounds? And as for your friendship with the sheriff, well, he's a bigger crook than you are!'

Incensed at this slur on both his honesty and that of his high-born friend, the fuller made the mistake of punching the Cornishman in the chest. He might as well have struck the city wall, for all the effect it had.

Gwyn gave a roar of annoyance and with a hand the size of a ham, pushed Walter in the face, so that he staggered back into the circle of villagers, for whom the prospect of a fight outweighed even a house fire in entertainment value.

But now things turned nasty, as sobbing with rage, the swarthy fuller reached to the back of his belt and drew out a wicked-looking dagger. As he brandished this, the crowd fell back, with a communal murmur of disapproval at this unsporting escalation of the quarrel.

'Put that away, you silly fool!' growled Gwyn, but Tyrell came forward and lunged at him with the blade. Gwyn stepped back and automatically felt for his sword -- but his hand failed to find the familiar hilt hanging on his belt. He had left it in the cottage and even while confronted by an angry man waving a knife, he fleetingly realized that his most treasured possession was by now probably ruined beyond repair.

A dagger attack was no novelty to Gwyn after two decades of fighting across Europe and the Holy Land, but even he was surprised by the ferocity of Tyrell's assault. Dodging the first wild slash, he tried to grab the man's wrist, but the fuller made a back-handed swing which caught Gwyn on the forearm. The sharp blade sliced through the leather of his sleeve and drew blood from a long cut below his elbow. It was not serious, but the Cornishman gave a bellow, more from indignation at being wounded by such an amateur, than from pain.

'When I get a sword, I'll cut your bloody head off!' he yelled, to the delight of the circle of onlookers. Deciding that this had gone far enough, Gwyn made a feint with his injured arm and in the split second that Walter's eyes flicked towards it, he gave him a resounding blow on the side of the head with his other fist. As the fuller staggered with his teeth still rattling, Gwyn grabbed his knife arm and twisted the blade from his fingers, then pushed him violently so that he staggered and fell flat on his back on the dusty road.

'Clear off, Tyrell! You can have your bloody house back again, what's left of it. I'll rent one further down the street that's got a decent roof!'

The red-headed giant threw the knife down alongside Walter, who clambered to his feet, still gibbering with rage, uttering threats and promises of dire retribution.

'The sheriff will hear of this first thing in the morning, damn you!' he snarled, as he tried to dust down his soiled tunic. 'You threatened to kill me! I'll attain you for assault at the next Shire Court!'

Gwyn, his temper already cooled, grinned at the fuming Walter. 'Will you choose trial by combat, then?' he said mockingly. 'I'll gladly challenge you with dagger or sword!'

There were jeers from the circle of spectators and his neighbour joined in the row.

'You should sue him, Gwyn! He struck you first -- and he's wounded you!'

Landlords being about as popular as tax-collectors, the men of St Sidwell began to scowl and look threateningly at Tyrell, who took the hint and still muttering, loped off towards the East Gate, which though it was well after curfew, had been opened by the porters to let him through because of the nearby fire.

With that particular drama over, the men turned their attention back to the burning cottage, but already the collapse of the walls had partly blanketed the fallen thatch and instead of a roaring inferno, the fire was settling into a steady bonfire.

'There's nothing you can do until morning, Gwyn,' said the tanner.

'Best come home and bed down with us for the rest of the night. My wife can bind up that arm of yours.'

As he moved away reluctantly, Gwyn took a last look at the remains of his home.

'As soon as it cools, I'll see if I can find my old sword,' he growled. 'But I doubt it'll be much use after being in there!'

'Twenty years I've had this -- and now look at it!'

The huge man looked mournfully at the weapon that lay across his knees, as he sat on a stool in the guard-room of Exeter's Rougemont Castle.

'I won it in a game of dice in Wexford,' he continued nostalgically. 'It's been with me in campaigns from Ireland to Palestine and saved my life a dozen times!'

A thin, leathery old soldier, the sergeant of the garrison's men-at-arms, looked down critically at the sword, as he passed behind the coroner's officer to refill his ale-pot from a jug on a shelf. The leather scabbard had burnt a...

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