Read The House of Crows Online

Authors: Paul Doherty

Tags: #Fiction - Historical, #Mystery, #14th Century, #England/Great Britain

The House of Crows

Being the Sixth of the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan
Paul Doherty



Copyright © 1995 Paul Doherty

All rights reserved.

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

This title first published in Great Britain in 1995 under the pseudonym of
Paul Harding

by Headline Book Publishing,

a division of Hodder Headline PLC

338 Euston Road, London NW1 3BH

eBook edition first published in 2012 by Severn Select an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

ISBN-13: 978-1448300389 (epub)

Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.

To Father John Armitage,
also a good priest working in the East End of London.
With every good wish.


No one will ever forget the night the demon came to Southwark. Spring was making itself felt, even in the derelict alleyways and filthy runnels of Southwark where it squatted on the south side of the Thames. The rains had washed the shit-strewn cobbles and the clouds had begun to break as daylight died on that fresh spring day. Apprentices and traders packed away their stalls. The high-sided dung-carts rattled through the streets as sweaty-faced labourers worked to clear the mess and refuse from the open, swollen sewers. The men worked cheerfully, remembering the pennies they had been promised. Not even a bloated corpse of a cat or a dog put them off the prospect of a bowl of soup and a blackjack of ale, once their labours were done.

Pike the ditcher, parishioner of St Erconwald’s in Southwark, was also out. He slipped by the church and into the Piebald tavern where the Dogman, the Weasel, the Fox and the Hare were waiting for him. They sat on upturned casks, around a table pushed into a shadowy corner, their unshaven faces hidden by the deep cowls pulled well over their heads.

‘You are late!’ Dogman snarled.

Pike swallowed nervously.

‘He who comes late,’ Weasel piped up, ‘always pays the tax!’

Pike groaned to himself: he called Tiptoe the potboy across and ordered five blackjacks of ale. Near the casks at the far end of the tavern, Joscelyn the one-armed taverner watched them all carefully. Pike closed his eyes and scratched his tousled beard. Did Joscelyn suspect what he was up to, Pike wondered? In which case Brother Athelstan, his parish priest, would be taking him aside next Sunday to give him his usual sermon. Pike’s face softened. As always, Athelstan, dressed in his black and white Dominican robes, with his olive-skinned face and gentle eyes full of concern, would lecture Pike about the dangers of treason and the horrors of the hangman’s rope.

‘Well,’ Dogman snarled, ‘how goes it, friend?’

Pike broke from his reverie. He leaned across the table, determined to show these representatives of the Great Community of the Realm that he was not frightened.

‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ Pike chanted.

The four rebel leaders, identities hidden under their strange names, nodded in unison. Nevertheless, they watched Pike intently for any sign of unease or lessening of fervour in the support of their great cause. Tiptoe brought across the blackjacks. Pike handed over one of his precious coins and, once the boy had left, the ditcher raised his tankard.

‘To the Great Cause!’ he murmured.

The other four acknowledged his salute and sipped at the tangy-flavoured drink.

‘Well?’ Hare asked. ‘How goes it in Southwark?’

‘The pot bubbles,’ Pike declared darkly. ‘Our young King Richard is only a child, his uncle, John of Gaunt, although only regent, acts like an emperor. Taxes are heavy, discontent swirls like dirt in the water; even the merchants protest.’ He slammed his tankard down. ‘A Parliament has been convened at Westminster,’ Pike continued excitedly. ‘John of Gaunt is demanding more money but the Commons refuse. They might impeach certain ministers.’

‘Pshaw!’ Narrow-eyed Weasel smirked and sipped from his tankard. ‘What do the fat ones expect? Clemency and pardon from a man like Gaunt?’

‘So, when will you come?’ Pike asked.

‘Times and dates are not for you,’ Hare retorted. ‘But, at a given sign when Jack Straw our priest sends out the burning cross, then we will come.’

‘Men from Essex, Kent, Suffolk, even as far north as the Trent,’ Dogman exclaimed, ‘will fall on London as fast as lightning. Like fire in the stubble, we will burn and cleanse this city from Southwark in the south to Cripplegate in the north.’

‘Aye,’ Weasel added. ‘Purify it with fire and sword. There’ll be no kings or princes, no great councils or Parliaments. The lords of the soil will be destroyed and the meek will inherit the earth.’

Dogman leaned across the table and seized Pike’s jerkin. ‘And the men of Southwark?’ he asked.

‘We will be good and true,’ Pike replied. ‘We will seize London Bridge and the gatehouse at both ends. We’ll be there when you march on the Tower.’

Dogman watched him closely. Perhaps he noticed Pike’s gaze shift a little or his lower lip tremble.

‘Are you still with us, Pike?’ he demanded softly.

‘Yes, it’s just . . .’

‘Just what?’ Fox leaned closer, grasping Pike’s hand and squeezing it tightly.

‘Will everyone die?’ Pike blurted out hoarsely. ‘Will no mercy be shown?’

‘None whatsoever,’ Fox replied, shielding his face with his tankard. ‘The lords, the bishops, the priests. Why, Pike, do you know of a man worth saving?’

‘Brother Atheisten,’ Pike hissed, dragging Dogman’s hand from his jerkin. ‘Parish priest of St Erconwald’s,’ he continued excitedly. He looked over his shoulder fearfully but Joscelyn had now gone. ‘Athelstan’s a good man,’ Pike whispered. ‘Gentle and kind. He loves his parishioners, turns no man away.’

‘He’s a shaven pate,’ Weasel replied. ‘A friar. Those who are not with us,’ he intoned, ‘are against us. Those who do not collect with us, scatter us abroad.’ He studied the determined set of Pike’s mouth. ‘However, mercy shall be shown to those who show mercy.’

‘Such as?’ Pike asked.

‘He will die quicker than the rest.’

The rebel leader finished his drink and slammed his tankard down on the table. ‘We shall leave,’ Dogman said, getting to his feet. ‘In a month’s time, Pike, we shall return. We will want to know how many men you can muster; how many bows, how many pikes.’ He grinned at the pun on the ditcher’s name.

The rest of the group filed out. Pike did not bother to see them go. He was just about to relax and bawl for another tankard when he felt his shoulder gripped: Dogman pushed his narrow, lean face up against his; so close that Pike flinched at the man’s sour breath.

‘You will not,’ he whispered, pushing a dirty cloth into Pike’s lap, ‘be hearing from Wolfsbane!’

Pike gulped at Dogman’s reference to their representative in Cripplegate Ward. ‘Why? What happened?’ he stammered.

‘He turned traitor and talked too much.’ Dogman squeezed Pike’s shoulder.

Pike sat frozen. When at last he glanced over his shoulder, the rebel leaders had left. He slowly undid the dirt-stained cloth and stared in horror at what it contained: a human tongue, grey and shrivelled, though its end was still bloody. Pike, still clutching the grisly burden, his stomach heaving, dashed from the tavern. Outside, he threw the rag into a sewer and, unable to control himself, knelt and vomited up everything he had drunk. An hour later, a more chastened Pike made his drunken way along the narrow alleyways. He had gone back into the Piebald and downed another quart before the terrors had subsided. Yet the ale had not made him any more courageous, and Pike was deeply regretting not following Brother Athelstan’s advice. He reached the end of the alleyway and, swaying from side to side, staggered towards the steps of St Erconwald’s Church.

The ditcher stopped: the door was locked and he could see no light. He looked across at the priest’s house but that, too, was cloaked in darkness. Pike tapped the side of his red, bloated nose. ‘I know where you are,’ he muttered.

Staggering back, Pike looked up at the top of the tower. Against the dark blue, starlit sky he saw the glow of flames and a dark shape moving. ‘You’re watching your bloody stars!’ Pike muttered.

The ditcher blinked wearily and sat down on the steps of the church. ‘I wish I was with you,’ he grumbled. ‘Well away from this nonsense.’

Pike cupped his face in his hands, musing disconsolately on his situation. London was now a seething bed of unrest. Taxes were heavy, food in short supply, the French were burning and harrying towns all along the coastline. Worse, out in the open countryside the peasant leaders, representatives of what they called the Great Community of the Realm, plotted a savage rebellion which would sweep away Church and State. Pike sighed. Sometimes it sounded exciting, but would it happen? And, if it did, would his second State be any better than the first? And what about Brother Athelstan? Would he die? Would he be hanged outside his church door as the rebel leaders had vowed all such priests would be? And if the rebellion failed, what would happen then? Pike, swaying drunkenly, got to his feet. Brother Athelstan was correct. Every gallows in London would be heavy with their rotten human fruit. There would be gibbets from here to Dover and the regent would spare no one.

‘Are you well, Pike?’

The ditcher spun round and groaned. Watkin the dung-collector, squat and fat as a toad, his broad red face made even brighter by the ale he had drunk, swaggered across, swinging his spade like a knight would his sword.

‘Good evening, Watkin.’ Pike blinked and tried to keep his voice steady.

Watkin was leader of the parish council, a post Pike deeply coveted. He was unable to seize it, not because of Watkin, who was a born fool, but because of Watkin’s redoubtable wife who had a tongue as sharp as any flail. The dung-collector stopped before him, resting on his spade.

‘You’ve been drinking.’

‘That makes two of us,’ Pike retorted.

‘Our wives will moan,’ Watkin added slyly, ‘but not so loudly if we tell them we have been on parish business.’

Pike smiled conspiratorially and both men staggered along the alleyway, each rehearsing their stories to soften the anger of their respective spouses. Half-way down they were joined by Bladdersniff the beadle, who was as deep in his cups as they were. There was nothing for it but to slake their thirst at a small ale-shop before continuing their journey. By the time they had finished, all three could hardly stand, so they linked arms and stumbled back to the church. As they confided to each other in loud whispers, they could sleep in the death-house there and make fresh excuses the next morning.

By the time they reached St Erconwald’s, Athelstan had apparently left his tower. All three stole into the cemetery, making their way around the mounds and weather-beaten crosses to the death-house in the far corner. Pike, finger to his lips, told the other two to wait while he fumbled with the bolt.

‘Oh, Lord, save us!’ he whispered. ‘It’s open already.’

He staggered in, took out his tinder and lit the dark yellow tallow candle which stood on its brass holder in the middle of the table. No sooner had he done this when he heard a sound in the far corner. Grasping the candle and whirling round, Pike stared in horror at the dark shape squatting on top of the parish coffin. The shape moved closer. Pike saw the glittering eyes, the terrible bared teeth and that dark, blue-red face in a halo of black, spiky hair.

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