The room was silent except for Langelee’s heavy breathing and the receding footsteps of Harling and his associates as they made their way up the dark street with Dame Pelagia. Bartholomew glanced at Matilde, who was trying not to look frightened, and wished with all his heart that he had never had the idea of secreting the elderly nun with the woman he regarded as one of his most dear friends. Langelee kicked the door closed with one foot and tightened his grip on the long hunting knife.
‘Watch him,’ Langelee ordered the sergeant, gesturing with a flick of his head at Michael, who was clearly poised to lunge. Langelee’s attentions were fixed on Bartholomew.
In a movement that was lightning quick, Langelee had crossed the room and struck the sergeant a heavy blow on the side of the neck. The sergeant crumpled into a heap. Bartholomew gazed from the unconscious sergeant to Langelee in bewilderment, an expression mirrored in the faces of Michael and Matilde.
‘We do not have much time,’ said Langelee urgently. ‘We must help Tulyet. Then we must try to save Dame Pelagia.’
‘But what-?’ began Michael.
Langelee opened the door and peered out into the darkness. ‘No time for that,’ he said. ‘Suffice to say I am loyal to the King.’ He turned to Matilde. ‘Bind this man securely and lock your door when we have gone. Open it to no one but the Sheriff.’ He leaned down, kissed her fully on the lips and was gone, leaving Bartholomew and Michael in utter confusion. Matilde scrubbed at her mouth in distaste. ‘Hurry!’ came Langelee’s voice from the street.
Dazed, they followed him outside. Cynric emerged from the darkness, his face anxious.
‘What is happening?’ he whispered. ‘The Vice-Chancellor has escaped and the Sheriff is chasing shadows by the river.’
‘Bartholomew?’ called Langelee. ‘Follow Harling with Cynric. Michael, you go to the castle for reinforcements. I will head down to the river and see what might be done to help Tulyet.’
With serious misgivings about leaving Matilde alone with the unconscious sergeant, and even greater ones about pursuing Harling, Bartholomew followed Cynric to Bridge Street, Michael panting along behind. Ahead of them, moving shadows in the darkness showed where Harling and his accomplices were hurrying Dame Pelagia towards the Barnwell Gate, presumably aiming for the open Fens to the north of the town.
‘Matt, we will never find them if they escape that way,’ groaned Michael. ‘The Fens are a labyrinth of hidden channels and secret causeways. My grandmother!’
‘Go to the castle,’ said Bartholomew, giving the monk a shove to get him moving. ‘Tell Tulyet’s deputy to send someone after us before we all get lost in the marshes.’
‘How do we know we can trust Langelee?’ asked Michael, grabbing Bartholomew’s sleeve. ‘He might be leading us into another trap.’
‘We have no choice,’ said Bartholomew, watching the dwindling shadows in the distance. ‘Had he meant us harm, we would be dead by now. And you had better ask Tulyet’s deputy to relieve him — assuming of course that the deputy is not one of these traitors among Tulyet’s garrison.’
He pushed Michael in the direction of the castle, and slipped away after Cynric towards the town gate. Distantly, there came the sound of men fighting, and Bartholomew hoped Michael’s message to the deputy would be in time to relieve the beleaguered Sheriff.
The Barnwell Gate was deserted, and Bartholomew assumed the guards were in Harling’s pay until he saw the dark outline of a body lying on the floor inside the hut. His physician’s instincts urged him to tend to the man, but Cynric dragged him on and out through the gate and into the open country beyond the town.
It was a cold night, with heavy clouds piling up against each other in readiness for yet another downpour. Here and there, however, patches of clear sky could be seen, with stars flickering against the blackness of space. At times, the moon was visible, sliding out to bathe the countryside is a soft, silvery light. The pathway was treacherous with thick mud from the rains of the afternoon, and Bartholomew skidded and slipped like a drunk, his fear of losing sight of the moving shadows ahead making him clumsy and incautious.
Near the town, small homesteads were scattered along the road, frail, vulnerable shacks with reed-thatched roofs and wattle-and-daub walls. Beyond them stretched their strips of fields, carefully hoed and lined with rows of winter vegetables. Doors opened slightly as they went past, and shadows could be seen moving behind the boarded windows as their occupants prepared to defend their kingdoms against those who would steal their meagre produce under cover of darkness.
Gradually, the houses became fewer, and then they died out altogether as the arable land gave way to the alder and willow tangle that marked the edge of the Fens. Once there were small trees to slink behind, and bushes that threw confused shadows across the pathway, Cynric increased the pace, attempting to close the gap between pursuer and pursued. The ground underfoot became waterlogged, rather than simply muddy, and the causeway rose above the surrounding land to cross the first of a series of bogs.
‘How many of them are there?’ Bartholomew asked Cynric as he trotted breathlessly behind.
‘Shh. Four and Dame Pelagia. We can take them.’ Cynric eased back into the shadows as one of the men ahead glanced back.
‘We cannot!’ said Bartholomew in alarm. ‘There is more to Harling than you think.’
‘But we will lose him once he reaches the marshes proper — and Dame Pelagia too,’ hissed Cynric. ‘Even if we manage to follow him, what do you imagine we can do? Which one of us will return for help? And how will he find his way to the other again?’
‘Then what do you suggest we do?’ asked Bartholomew, feeling his heart thudding painfully against his ribs. ‘I have no weapon, and even if I could manage Harling — which I do not think I could — that would still leave you with three others.’
‘You are too crude in your thinking, boy,’ said Cynric, drawing his long Welsh dagger. ‘We will slip up behind them and pick them off one by one.’
‘Will we now?’
Bartholomew and Cynric spun round at the sound of Harling’s voice so close to them.
‘This is becoming tiresome,’ said the Vice-Chancellor. He had drawn a knife from his belt, and Bartholomew saw it glint in the moonlight as it flicked towards him. The physician jerked backwards, skidding on the slippery ground as the weapon flashed past his face. There was a blur of movement and he saw Cynric dart forward with his own dagger drawn, but Harling’s reactions were too quick, even for Cynric, and he had leapt out of the range of the hunting knife before it could do more than catch his sleeve. While Harling was occupied with Cynric, Bartholomew rushed at him, snatching at the hand that held the weapon, but Harling simply stepped to one side, and a well-placed foot sent the physician sprawling to the ground, legs and arms becoming hopelessly entangled in his long cloak as he fell.
Harling, meanwhile, had seized a stout stick from the ground, and wielded it in his left hand. He feinted at Cynric with the dagger, and then hit out with his branch, sending the Welshman tumbling into the bushes. Harling turned his attention to Bartholomew. The physician struggled to free himself from the cloth as Harling advanced, but the more he squirmed, the tighter the folds seemed to envelop him. He managed to release one arm and shot out a hand to grasp Harling around the ankle, pulling hard so that the Vice-Chancellor fell heavily and his knife skittered from his hand.
‘I am here, boy!’ cried Cynric, emerging dishevelled from the undergrowth, as Harling took a firm hold on the stick and prepared to strike Bartholomew with it.
Cursing, Harling abandoned the branch, scrambled to his feet and raced forward, bowling into Cynric so that they both fell over the edge of the causeway and disappeared from view. Bartholomew crawled cautiously towards it, and peered down. At that moment, the moon came out from behind a cloud, bathing the Fens in an eerie light and illuminating the spot where Harling was trying to force Cynric’s head into a marshy puddle. Cynric was struggling valiantly, but Harling was bigger, stronger and had both knees pressed into Cynric’s back, making it difficult for the Welshman to move to defend himself.
With a yell of fury, Bartholomew launched himself at the Vice-Chancellor, who abandoned his attempt to drown Cynric and backed away quickly.
‘Your friend will die unless you help him out of the bog,’ said Harling, gesturing to where Cynric was trying to extricate himself from the clinging mud. He took a step towards the causeway.
‘I will not!’ yelled Cynric, floundering helplessly in the marsh.
‘Keep still, Cynric,’ called Bartholomew urgently. ‘You will sink faster if you struggle.’
‘Fight him, boy!’ the Welshman howled. ‘You can do it! He is a coward when he has no weapons.’
‘He will slip below the surface, and you will never see him again,’ said Harling. He reached the bottom of the causeway bank and began to inch up it. ‘He will be sucked down to the bowels of the Earth — to the very mouth of hell.’
‘I can get out of this,’ gasped Cynric, his voice carrying less conviction than a few moments before. He fell to one side, so that not only were both his legs caught to knee-height in the thick, cloying mud, but one arm, too. ‘Watch him or he will escape!’
‘Cynric, lie still!’ Bartholomew’s gaze went from the trapped book-bearer to Harling as he began to climb the bank.
‘Look at him,’ said the Vice-Chancellor, eyeing Cynric pityingly. ‘Help him now, Bartholomew, or say your farewells while he can still hear you.’
Bartholomew did not answer and began to move towards Harling, determined that he should not evade justice yet again. An involuntary gasp from Cynric, as mud oozed into his mouth, made him falter and he glanced quickly at the Welshman. When he looked back to Harling, the Vice-Chancellor had clambered over the edge of the causeway and was lost from sight.
‘After him, boy!’ shouted Cynric furiously, pointing to where he had disappeared ‘Do not let him escape!’
But by the time Bartholomew had scrambled onto the causeway, the road was deserted and he could see nothing moving in either direction. He ran a few steps one way and then the other, peering desperately into the darkness, and trying to detect the slightest of movements that might tell him which way Harling had gone. There was nothing. He stopped and closed his eyes, listening intently for footsteps or the crack of a twig, but all he could hear was Cynric’s agitated flapping as he fought to free himself from the marsh. It was hopeless! Bartholomew knew he could never hope to track Harling without Cynric’s help, and, reluctantly, he slithered back down the bank and picked his way towards his book-bearer.
‘Give me your hand,’ said Bartholomew, reaching towards him. Immediately, his own feet began to sink. He stepped backwards to the relative safety of a mat of dead reeds.
‘Throw me your cloak!’ said Cynric. He gave an exasperated sigh. ‘Not the whole thing, boy! Keep hold of one end so you can tug me free.’
Bartholomew heaved as hard as he could, his feet sliding in the slick mud, but he felt himself being dragged towards Cynric, rather than the other way round. After several abortive attempts, it occurred to him to wrap the cloak round a tree trunk and use it as a kind of pulley.
‘It is working!’ called Cynric triumphantly, as one knee emerged from the sucking slime. ‘Pull, boy! I have no wish to enter hell through a bog.’
‘Harling was lying,’ gasped Bartholomew, hauling with all his might. ‘The marshes near the town are not bottomless. Those are further north. He was just trying to distract me to give himself time to escape.’
‘Well, he succeeded,’ muttered Cynric, not without disapproval. ‘He used me to prevent you from following him. You should not have listened to his treacherous words.’
Cynric’s feet came free of the mud with a foul plopping sound, and he was able to reach Bartholomew’s hand. Together, they stumbled from the bog, and climbed the slippery bank to the causeway.
‘Where did he go?’ Cynric demanded urgently, looking one way and then the other. ‘Which direction did he take? We might catch him yet!’
‘You are soaked,’ said Bartholomew. ‘You should return to the town before you take a chill.’
‘And leave you here alone?’ asked Cynric, in the tone of voice that suggested it was not an option worth considering. ‘I am fine, boy. But what of Harling? Did he head east or west?’
Bartholomew was forced to admit that he did not know. Cynric gave him a look of appalled disgust, and wordlessly began to search for clues. In desperation, Bartholomew ran up the road until he was forced to stop and catch his breath, but, apart from the sound of his own laboured gasps, the marshes were as silent as the grave. He doubled back again, panting heavily, and hating to think he had allowed Harling to outwit him so easily.
‘It is too dark,’ muttered Cynric, slashing viciously at the undergrowth with his dagger. ‘I cannot see well enough to track him, even when the moon is out.’
‘Please try, Cynric!’ cried Bartholomew, crashing around uncertainly in the dense shrubs at the side of the causeway, searching for some hidden path that Harling might have taken. ‘He will kill Dame Pelagia for certain if you lose him!’
Cynric’s shoulders slumped in defeat. ‘I cannot, boy,’ he said softly. ‘He has given us the slip and I can do nothing about it until daylight.’
‘Daylight?’ echoed Bartholomew in horror. ‘But that may be too late! Dame Pelagia might be dead by then!’
Cynric nodded slowly, but turned his attention back to the task he knew was hopeless.
While Cynric continued to hunt in vain for some clue as to the direction Harling might have taken, Bartholomew lumbered about in the bushes near where Harling had attacked them. The task was impossible, but they continued relentlessly until the first threads of dawn began to lighten the sky in the east. Out of the semi-darkness, they heard the thud of hooves, and Cynric dragged Bartholomew into the bushes until he recognised the horsemen: Michael, Langelee, and Tulyet with some of his men. Bartholomew could not meet Michael’s eyes when he told him how they had lost Harling and Dame Pelagia, and turned away when Michael sank down at the side of the road and put his head in his hands.
Tulyet had sustained a cut over one eye in the skirmish near the river, and he told Bartholomew that reinforcements from his deputy had arrived in the nick of time. Langelee had apparently fought like the Devil, and it was only with his help that Tulyet and those soldiers who had remained loyal had managed to hold off the ambushers. The deputy’s force had tipped the balance, and those of Harling’s men who had not been killed in the fighting were now safely in the castle prison — among them Alan of Norwich and his mercenaries.
As Tulyet gave Bartholomew and Cynric this information, one of the soldiers said he knew where there was a track that led to the village of Fen Ditton through the marshes. He led the way a short distance to the north, and gestured at the undergrowth, but Bartholomew could see nothing that remotely resembled a path. Nevertheless, he followed the soldier through the tangle of vegetation with the others trailing behind, Cynric pointing out broken leaves and footprints that indicated someone had passed that way, although whether it was Harling and Dame Pelagia was impossible to tell.
‘Of sorts,’ said Langelee. ‘I work for the Archbishop of York. There is a grammar school master there by the name of Thorpe, who passed the Archbishop some disturbing information.’
‘Thorpe?’ asked Bartholomew, startled. ‘Robert Thorpe, the disgraced Master of Valence Marie? What could he know about this? He had gone from Cambridge long before winter started.’
‘He left in October. But do not interrupt if you want your questions answered,’ said Langelee importantly. ‘While Thorpe was travelling from Cambridge to take up his new position in York, he had occasion to seek refuge at Denny Abbey during a sudden storm. As he waited for it to pass, a nun told him of a conversation she had overheard between the Abbess and some unidentified University man, during which they discussed plans to bring treasure from sacked Brittany abbeys and convents into England.’
‘And I suppose this nun was Dame Pelagia,’ said Bartholomew heavily. ‘Michael said she was spying there.’
‘This nun charged Thorpe to report the matter to the Archbishop when he reached York,’ continued Langelee, ignoring him. ‘Thorpe was only too pleased to oblige — thinking it might go some way to placing him more favourably in the King’s eyes after the mess he made of the Mastership of Valence Marie. He passed the message to the Archbishop as soon as he arrived in York. The Archbishop informed the King, and it was arranged that I should take a position within the University, so that I could work myself into this scholar’s confidences to uncover the identities of all his accomplices and recover this treasure.’
‘Yet another spy,’ sighed Bartholomew. ‘Sometimes I wonder whether I am the only person at the University whose purpose is to teach.’
‘I have rather enjoyed teaching,’ said Langelee. ‘Perhaps I will leave the Archbishop’s service and stay at Michaelhouse. It is far more interesting — and exciting — than life as an agent.’
This Bartholomew could well believe. ‘But how did you know it was Harling that Thorpe overheard plotting with the Abbess? He was very careful to leave no such clues behind him.’
‘He told me himself,’ said Langelee with a casual shrug. ‘I arrived at the University, and put it about that I was not above being asked to perform certain duties in addition to my scholarly ones. Within weeks Harling asked me if I would be interested in a little extra-curricular activity involving trips into the Fens.’
‘How fortunate for you,’ said Michael coldly. ‘And what would you have done if Harling had not been recruiting for his smuggling operation?’
Langelee gave a superior smile. ‘Since he was, that question is an irrelevancy. He has a number of clerks from St Mary’s Church, and even a couple of Fellows, in his pay. Including the outlaws he has hired, he probably has about fifty people working for him.’
‘Fifty!’ gasped Michael. ‘My God! His operation is vast.’
Langelee nodded. ‘And so are his profits, believe me. In fact, the whole organisation is remarkable. He only started this after you lot failed to elect him as Chancellor last year, and he has been extraordinarily successful. You scholars made a grave mistake by not using his talents to further the interests of the University. By now, Cambridge might have been rich beyond its wildest dreams — and even been in a position to take steps to suppress your rival University at Oxford!’
‘Most of us would rather not have a contrabander as Chancellor,’ said Bartholomew stiffly. ‘We generally prefer academics.’
‘Then you are bigger fools that I thought,’ said Langelee earnestly. ‘Harling is a brilliant man. Not only did he have this huge operation up and running within a few weeks, but he knew when to stop. Had I not wormed my way into his confidences, he would never have been caught.’
‘And I suppose our little roles in all this count for nothing?’ asked Michael scathingly.
‘Precisely!’ said Langelee, with a superior grin. ‘And you would not even be alive now, if it were not for me.’ He beamed at them, oblivious of Michael’s indignation.
The air was still, damp and cold, and Bartholomew was painfully reminded of the last time they had ventured into the secret, mysterious world of the Fens. Somewhere a bird pipped and hooted and was answered by another in the distance, but otherwise the only sounds were their feet trampling through the undergrowth. A low mist was rising in the early dawn, sending ghostly fingers of white to ooze across brackish water and around the squat trunks of stunted alder trees.
Bartholomew shivered, realising for the first time that he had left his cloak wrapped around the branch of the tree where Cynric had been caught in the mud. Within the space of a day, he had managed to lose his new cloak and new gloves, and facing the rest of the winter without them was a bleak prospect. He felt drained, cold and miserable, acutely aware that Harling had bested him at every turn. His boots were full of icy water, his tabard was filthy with black mud and he was so tired he could barely walk. No such discomfort seemed to assail Langelee, who strode along buoyantly, as though he were on some pleasant countryside jaunt, thoroughly enjoying relating his tale to the dejected scholars who trailed beside him.
‘So, after Harling recruited me into his service, I made myself indispensable to him. Then, when you two started investigating the poisoned wine, Harling realised he needed to prevent you from looking into it any further, and so he arranged for you to be ambushed in the Fens. When that failed, he decided he had made enough money and that it was time to stop before he was caught. Obviously, I wanted to get
‘Did Tulyet know of your role in all this from the beginning?’ asked Bartholomew faintly, hoping that the Sheriff could not be numbered in the list of people who had lied to him or deceived him over the past few weeks.
‘No one knew except Master Kenyngham,’ said Langelee airily. ‘And he had been sworn to secrecy by the King himself. What I was doing was potentially very dangerous, and I did not want anyone to be aware of my real business at the University except the Master of my College.’
So Kenyngham had been instructed to hire Langelee as Master of Philosophy by no less than the King himself, thought Bartholomew. Michael had been right in his supposition that Langelee had a powerful sponsor. Smiling complacently at their surprise, Langelee continued.
‘I was on the brink of telling Tulyet all I knew, when events started to take on a momentum all of their own. I was in my room, in the very process of writing a report on my findings to present to him, when Harling himself paid me a visit. He said he needed my help to round up his men and to load the last of the smuggled treasure onto a cart.’
He swore as, not paying attention to where he was going, he trod in a puddle that was deeper than he anticipated and black mud bubbled up around his knees. He held out his hand to Michael to be helped out. Hands on hips, Bartholomew watched the fat monk haul and tug, while Langelee became muddier, wetter and increasingly frustrated at Michael’s incompetence. It did not cross the philosopher’s mind that Michael might well be pulling so inefficiently on purpose — although it was perfectly apparent to Bartholomew. Eventually, and entirely as a result of his own struggles and not Michael’s assistance, Langelee was free. He brushed himself down and continued with his story, unaware of Michael’s spiteful smile of gratification.
‘Before I left Michaelhouse to do Harling’s bidding, I charged Bartholomew’s student — that stupid Rob Deynman — with handing my report to Master Kenyngham. He tried to refuse, claiming he was off on some errand of mercy to save a patient’s life. I impressed on him the importance of my report and the dire consequences that would occur should it fall into the wrong hands. I must have impressed a little too firmly, because finding Kenyngham out, Deynman was too afraid to go to look for him. He simply settled himself in Kenyngham’s room to await his return. He was there most of yesterday.’
‘So he was not kidnapped by Harling at all?’ asked Bartholomew.
Langelee shook his head. ‘Gray told me you thought Deynman might be in some danger and, knowing Harling, I guessed he had told you he had the lad secreted away somewhere. Deynman spent most of yesterday asleep on Kenyngham’s bed, but had handed him my report with all solemnity when Kenyngham returned. Deynman never left the College, and your patient with winter fever was never tended.’
Bartholomew rubbed his eyes, uncertain whether to be relieved that Deynman was unharmed or angry that he had been so single-minded. He could at least have told his friends what he was doing.
‘So why have you been so antagonistic to your Michaelhouse colleagues?’ he asked Langelee. ‘Why did you try to start a fight with me the other day? Surely that was not necessary?’
‘Sorry,’ said Langelee, with an unrepentant smile. ‘You see, Harling was becoming paranoid about the poisoned wine, and ordered me to search your rooms to see if you were withholding information from him. I had just finished searching Michael’s chamber, and was about to look in yours, when you returned to College clearly ready to go to sleep.’
Bartholomew recalled Langelee perched on his table, going through his scrolls and looking around at his few belongings with interest.
‘Surely there were easier ways of getting what you wanted than picking a fight?’
‘I needed the information quickly and you were about to go to bed. I did a preliminary search with you there, but I needed a closer look. It would have appeared suspicious had I knocked you senseless for no reason, and so I tried to goad you into a brawl. You showed admirable restraint, but then Kenyngham caught us.’
They walked in silence for a while, their feet squelching in the wet grass. The day was growing much lighter, a sensation enhanced by the pale mist that rose all around them. It was like walking in a great white bubble, the fog seeming to accentuate even more the deathly silence of the Fens. Cynric moved from side to side, absorbed in broken twigs and crushed blades of grass that no one else noticed. The soldier led them deeper and deeper into the marshes and Bartholomew found himself walking ever more slowly, alert to the possibility that they were being drawn into yet another of Harling’s complicated traps.
‘It was not easy, worming my way into Harling’s confidence,’ said Langelee after a while, wanting to ensure that the two scholars fully appreciated the magnitude of his achievement. ‘He drinks, you know, and often insisted I should join him, even early in the morning. I did not wish to arouse his suspicions and so complied. I can barely remember some days.’
Bartholomew remembered them, however, when Langelee had reeled belligerently around Michaelhouse, yelling at the servants and frightening the students. He also remembered the alcoholic fumes that had wafted into his face when Langelee had tried to force him to fight. Langelee may have been on the right side in the end, but Bartholomew strongly suspected much of his loutish behaviour was no act.
‘And you cultivated Julianna’s friendship because you imagined her betrothal to Edward might bring you information?’ asked Bartholomew.
Langelee stopped dead in his tracks and his brows beetled together. For a moment, Bartholomew thought the powerful philosopher was going to strike him, but the moment passed. Langelee began to walk again.
‘I knew nothing of this betrothal,’ he said shortly. ‘I “cultivated Julianna’s friendship”, as you so unpleasantly put it, because I find her company charming.’
‘Her uncle sent her away to Denny when he found out I had been paying her court,’ Langelee went on. ‘But she managed to find her way back.’ The admiration in his voice was crystal clear. Bartholomew dreaded to think what a meeting between this violent, aggressive, self-confident pair would involve: Langelee would probably find Julianna’s belligerence attractive while Julianna would consider Langelee’s pugilism manly.
The soldier ahead of them stopped sharply, gave a horrified yell and backed away, colliding with Bartholomew who walked behind him. Bartholomew edged forward nervously, wondering what could have caused the soldier’s sudden distress. Langelee shoved him, trying to squeeze past on the narrow path, but stopped abruptly.
In front of them was a bog, an evil morass of sloppy mud topped by a still layer of water. Protruding just above the surface was a smooth cap of black hair, the grease of which had kept it shiny and water-free. To one side of the cap was a pale, cold hand, its fingers still clenched around the branch of the tree with which it had attempted to haul its owner free. But it was the other hand that caught Bartholomew’s attention. It held the clean, white veil that Dame Pelagia had worn.
He twisted round, intending to prevent Michael from seeing it, but was too late. Michael’s green eyes became round with shock and he let out a great wail of grief.
‘No! Oh, no!’
Michael’s cry echoed around the Fens, causing some ducks to take to the air noisily, the panicky flapping of wings in the undergrowth loud in the ensuing silence. Langelee, Tulyet and his soldiers, Cynric, Michael and Bartholomew stood in a circle, looking down in horror at the dead hand and what it held. Harling might be dead, but he had taken Dame Pelagia with him. Bartholomew recalled Harling trying to throw him in the mill race and then attempting to force Cynric’s head under water just a short time before — Harling had been determined to drown someone.
‘Come on,’ said Tulyet, quickly coming to his senses, and clapping his hands to marshal his soldiers’ attention. ‘The others cannot be far away and I do not want them to escape. Cynric, take Master Langelee and search over to the south. I will look to the west with Justin, while the rest of my men can cover the ground to the north. Matt, you had better stay here with Brother Michael.’
‘Damn!’ shouted Langelee in frustration, kicking a rotten tree stump. ‘I wanted to take Harling alive to present to the King. All my hard work and it ends like this. It is not fair!’
‘It was not fair that Dame Pelagia died at Harling’s hands in a desolate marsh either,’ said Bartholomew quietly.
Langelee glanced at Michael’s stricken face, and relented slightly. He stamped off through the undergrowth after Cynric, leaving Bartholomew and Michael alone with the grisly spectre of the drowned Vice-Chancellor.
‘Get it back from him, Matt,’ whispered Michael unsteadily, his eyes huge in his white face. ‘I do not want her veil in his filthy hand.’
Holding Michael’s arm for balance, Bartholomew leaned towards the bog, and grabbed the piece of white material. Harling’s grip on it was vice-like, and, as Bartholomew pulled, he felt the body moving with it. With a shudder, he let it go, so that the veil trailed in the mud, the crisp linen quickly becoming wet and brown. He was turning to suggest that they leave it until there was someone else to help, when the veil suddenly disappeared under the black surface of the water. Puzzled, Bartholomew stared at it. And then Harling exploded from the water with a sword in his hand and an evil smile on his face. Droplets and spray scattered everywhere, drenching the two scholars, who stood rooted to the spot with shock at the edge of the marsh.
Aghast, Bartholomew watched as the Vice-Chancellor landed on the dry land beside him, dashing the water from his eyes and drawing in great gulps of fresh air. Michael gave a howl of anger, and launched himself at him, murder written all over his face. Calmly, Harling seized Bartholomew, touching the tip of his sword against the physician’s throat.
‘Think again, Brother,’ he said softly. ‘Or you will be mourning more than your old nun.’
By the time Bartholomew’s numbed brain could make any sense out of what was happening, it was far too late to act, and all he could hear was the sound of Harling breathing heavily and hotly against his ear. He struggled, but felt the cold touch of metal on his neck.
‘Be still! I will not be so gentle with you this time, Bartholomew!’
‘But how could you hold your breath all that time?’ stammered Bartholomew, still not sure he believed what was happening, and half expecting to wake in his own bed at Michaelhouse and find it was all some dreadful nightmare.
Harling made an impatient sound. ‘Reeds, of course!’ he snapped. ‘This place is full of them, and I told you I had good water skills. Surely you did that as a child, used one as a pipe to breathe through while you stayed under the surface?’
‘I cannot say that I did,’ said Michael coldly. ‘What have you done with my grandmother?’
‘Your grandmother is it?’ asked Harling. ‘Well, that explains your uncharacteristic selflessness in protecting her — not that she needed anything from you, Brother. That woman had a mind cunning and devious enough to delight any scholar. It was she who led Edward and that dim-witted lay sister into this part of the Fens — where she knew they would flounder and make slow progress. How they allowed themselves to listen to her advice when she was their captive I cannot imagine.’
‘Where is she?’ demanded Michael unsteadily. The use of the past tense to refer to her had not escaped his attention.
Harling gestured carelessly to the marsh, where the very tip of the veil could be seen just under the brown surface of the water, disappearing into the blackness below. At that moment, Langelee and Cynric burst into the little clearing, alerted by Michael’s yell of fury. Bartholomew watched the bushes for signs that Tulyet might be close, but the Sheriff had left some moments before Langelee, and had probably been too far away to hear Michael’s shout.
‘Drop your weapons!’ Harling ordered Langelee and Cynric, tightening his grip on Bartholomew’s neck. ‘Throw them in the bog or I will kill him right now.’
‘Go on, kill him, then,’ said Langelee, drawing his own sword. ‘He is expendable. There are far higher stakes in this game than the life of an anonymous scholar.’
‘Put it down, Langelee,’ said Michael, taking a menacing step forward. ‘Do as he says.’
Cynric hurled his dagger into the pool of water with a splash that distracted Langelee, and then relieved the philosopher of his sword while his attention strayed. A hunting knife followed it, leaving Langelee spitting with impotent rage.
‘Fool!’ he spat at Cynric. ‘Now he will kill us all!’
‘There,’ said Cynric, raising his empty hands and ignoring Langelee’s enraged spluttering. ‘Now let him go.’
Harling gave a mirthless smile, and pressed the point of his sword to Bartholomew’s chin. ‘I am not stupid, Cynric. You can also dispense of the knife you carry in your boot, and the one you have in your sleeve.’
Cynric blanched, but did as Harling ordered. When the weapons were no more than a trail of bubbles in the water, Harling suddenly shoved Bartholomew away from him so that he crashed into Langelee. Langelee stood like a rock, and one of his ham-like hands stopped the physician from falling, while Harling moved a safe distance away from them, wiping droplets of water from his eyes and dispensing with his sodden cloak. Bartholomew backed up against a tree, his legs shaking from shock and fatigue.
‘What do you mean to do?’ demanded Langelee, rather more petulantly than was wise given who was holding the weapon.
‘I want you, Langelee,’ said Harling with his nasty smile. ‘You have betrayed me for months, worming your way into my confidence, while all the time you were an agent for the King. I would never have left Cambridge without settling my score with you, and now you have played right into my hands — I knew you would follow me here.’
He selected a knife from a collection in his belt that he seemed to have acquired since he had attacked Bartholomew and Cynric on the causeway, and balanced it in his palm, still holding the sword in his left hand. Bartholomew’s fingers closed around a piece of loose bark that he had tugged from the tree against which he leaned. Harling raised one arm, and took aim.
Without stopping to consider the consequences, Bartholomew hurled the bark at the Vice-Chancellor as hard as he could, causing him to falter just as the knife left his hand. The weapon skimmed past the philosopher’s head and thumped into the trunk of a tree, where it quivered from the force with which it was thrown. Harling cursed angrily, while Langelee took advantage of the opportunity to scramble away into the bushes. Michael and Cynric were not long in following his example.
‘Damn you, Bartholomew!’ screamed Harling, seeing his quarry gone. ‘Why do you persist in foiling me at every step?’
He grabbed another knife from the collection in his belt and held it like a spear, narrowing his eyes as he aimed. Bartholomew dived away from the tree, and twisted to one side as Harling’s arm dropped. The knife embedded itself in Bartholomew’s medicine bag, spinning him round and smashing phials that immediately began dripping.
There was a shout from the undergrowth, not far away. Tulyet must have heard Michael’s yell after all, and was making his way towards them. If Harling intended to kill them all, he did not have much time.
Bartholomew scrambled away, desperately looking for somewhere to hide. Harling followed, his eyes filled with a grim purpose, and the others seemingly forgotten. He drew yet another knife, and Bartholomew’s foot slipped in mud so that he fell to his knees. He tried to duck around a thick willow tree, but Harling followed him and was standing so close that Bartholomew could hear his agitated breathing. There would be no escape this time. He turned to face Harling, and saw the glitter of triumph in the Vice-Chancellor’s face as he raised his arm to throw the dagger that could not miss. Bartholomew closed his eyes tightly, waiting for the searing pain that would end his life.
‘Matt!’ came Michael’s anguished yell.
Bartholomew forced himself to open his eyes. Harling’s expression of hatred turned to one of surprise, and he lowered the knife to waist level. Bartholomew waited, confused. Did Harling mean to stab him, rather than simply to throw the knife? The Vice-Chancellor looked down at him oddly, and then pitched forwards, the knife still in his hand. Bartholomew saw the weapon aimed at his chest as Harling landed on him, knocking him flat on his back.
For a few terrifying moments, he was unable to move, and was uncertain whether he had been stabbed or not: he had been told many times by dying patients that their mortal injuries were painless. But then Langelee and Michael ran forward and heaved the inert Vice-Chancellor away from him, and he found himself unharmed. Protruding from Harling’s back was a long, thin blade, embedded so deeply that Bartholomew wondered if it had skewered him clean through. Behind them stood Dame Pelagia, poised to move quickly should Harling show further signs of life.
Dame Pelagia stepped out of the undergrowth and came towards them, smiling beatifically. Michael elbowed Bartholomew and Langelee out of the way and tore towards her, taking her up in a bear-like hug that Bartholomew was afraid might crack her ribs.
Bartholomew nodded, while Langelee watched the reunion with fascination. There was a rustle in the undergrowth and Tulyet emerged, flanked by his men. He saw Harling motionless on the ground and gaped at him.
‘We saw him drowned!’ he exclaimed. ‘Is he some kind of demon to defy death and rise from his grave to persecute us all?’ He crossed himself vigorously.
‘Dame Pelagia made an end of him,’ said Langelee, nodding to where Michael still held the old lady in a protective hug.
‘Are you sure he is not still alive?’ asked Tulyet, prodding the Vice-Chancellor cautiously with his foot, as though he imagined Harling might still leap to his feet and attack them all. ‘Check him, will you, Matt? We should be certain this time.’
Reluctantly, Bartholomew knelt next to the body and felt for a life-beat in the great vessels of the neck. There was nothing, and Harling’s eyes were wide open and staring. The knife was perfectly positioned to penetrate his heart, and was embedded almost to the hilt. Dame Pelagia possessed a powerful throwing arm, it seemed.
‘He is dead,’ he said, standing and backing away from the body.
‘Well, wrap him in his cloak and make sure you bind him tightly,’ said Tulyet to one of his men, taking no chances. ‘And then continue the search for his companions. They cannot have gone far.’
‘Edward Mortimer is trapped in a bog over there, while his accomplices fled in that direction,’ said Dame Pelagia, pointing with a soft, wrinkled finger. She disengaged herself from Michael and walked towards them. ‘They will not get far. The silly fools did not take the rains into account when they allowed me to convince them to take a short cut. At any other time of year it would be perfectly safe, but the water level is far too high at the moment.’
‘Is Edward Mortimer alive?’ asked Tulyet, dispatching his men away in the directions she had indicated.
Dame Pelagia smiled sweetly. ‘Oh yes. Just trapped. I have been keeping up his spirits with a few tales.’ Her smile widened into a grin, revealing her small, pointed teeth.
Bartholomew was certain he would not like to hear any tales Dame Pelagia might tell.
‘I am sorry to have taken so long to come to your rescue,’ she went on. ‘I could not get a clear shot and too many innocents have already died in this ungodly mess without me adding another.’
Michael seemed surprised. ‘That would not have prevented you trying ten years ago.’
Dame Pelagia sighed and then patted her grandson affectionately on the cheek. ‘You know me too well,’ she said with the grin that seemed to Bartholomew to be rather wolfish. ‘The truth is that I only managed to grab one of Harling’s knives when I escaped from him. I could not afford to miss him and hit one of you instead, because that would have been the end of us all.’
‘How did you escape?’ asked Bartholomew. ‘It looked to me as though Edward and that lay sister had you held firmly between them.’
‘They are amateurs and hardly worth mentioning,’ said Dame Pelagia with patent indifference. ‘I bided my time, slowing them down whenever I could, because I wanted to ensure Harling did not escape and I knew you would be tracking our progress. Reinforcements were, however, a little later in arriving than I had anticipated.’ She looked accusingly at the Sheriff and then at Bartholomew.
‘That is what happens when you work with normal people instead of cunning and experienced agents,’ retorted Bartholomew, irritated at the criticism after all the trouble they had taken to help her. ‘But Harling said that you were in the bog and that he had killed you.’
Dame Pelagia waved a dismissive hand, much as Michael often did when Bartholomew suggested something he did not consider worth discussing. ‘Harling fell in the water and then tried to drag me in with him. I simply allowed my veil to slip off and then shoved that ridiculous lay sister in after him. One nun in a wet habit looks much like another and he drowned her not me. It just goes to show that — as all we agents are taught — it is dangerous to allow your attention to stray, even for a moment, or you may end up killing someone who was on your side.’
Bartholomew gaped at her. The hem of her cloak and her shoes were wet and muddy, but other than that she was spotless, a marked contrast to everyone else with their sodden cloaks and filthy, dirt-splattered clothes and faces. If she had engaged in some kind of struggle with Harling and the lay sister, then she had managed to do so with minimum effort and absolutely no disturbance to her immaculate appearance.
She chuckled, amused by his shock, and turned her attention back to Michael, clucking over a small scratch on his hand and setting his gold cross straight against his habit.
‘Is she really his grandmother?’ asked Langelee yet again, staring at them as they walked away together.
‘Yes. She really is,’ said Bartholomew, finally recovering himself, and taking the philosopher by the arm so Michael and Dame Pelagia might have some privacy. He failed to see why their relationship should be any concern of Langelee’s — or the Archbishop of York’s.
‘But that is Dame Pelagia?’ said Langelee in awe.
‘I know,’ said Bartholomew drily. He doubted he would ever forget it. Langelee continued to gaze at Michael and the old nun, resisting Bartholomew’s attempts to pull him away.
‘You have not heard of her, have you?’ said Langelee, shaking his head slowly. ‘Dame Pelagia is one of the greatest and most respected of all the King’s agents, and it is said that she is one of the few people who knows all the details of the mystery surrounding the death of Edward the Second — he was our current King’s father.’
‘Was he really?’ asked Bartholomew innocently. ‘I had no idea.’
‘You scholars!’ said Langelee, condescendingly chiding. ‘How can you expect to teach when you know so little of the world? But I was telling you about Dame Pelagia. It is not mere chance that Queen Isabella, whom we all know played a role in her husband’s murder, spends her days at Castle Rising near a Franciscan nunnery — a house of Poor Clares, which is Dame Pelagia’s Order. It is common knowledge at Westminster that the King would entrust the wardenship of his murderous mother to no one but Dame Pelagia.’
Bartholomew looked at the old lady with renewed suspicion. No wonder Michael was unwilling to take a post as a mere head of a University College with those kind of family connections!
‘A year or so ago,’ Langelee went on, ‘the King relieved her of that charge, and allowed her to retire into the less arduous service of the Bishop of Ely by living at Denny — she was supposed to keep an eye on the Countess of Pembroke when she visited. But it was not long before Dame Pelagia routed out trouble on the King’s behalf. As you concluded earlier, it was she who passed the message to Thorpe to give to my Archbishop.’
‘But why did she send this message with Thorpe to the Archbishop of York?’ asked Bartholomew. ‘Why did she not tell Michael? He told me she meets him on occasion to pass the Countess of Pembroke’s secrets to the Bishop.’
‘I imagine because it was quicker to send a message with Thorpe. Denny is very isolated and it might have been some time before she could waylay anyone trustworthy enough to carry a message to tell Michael to meet her.’
‘But she did not inform Michael that she knew a scholar was behind all this,’ said Bartholomew, still confused, ‘or that she had sent a message to the King via Thorpe and the Archbishop of York.’
‘I have already told you,’ said Langelee impatiently. ‘No one knew about my mission except Master Kenyngham and the King. Dame Pelagia doubtless guessed that someone like me was infiltrating the University, but she was not officially informed. And she is too professional to have risked endangering another agent and his duties by gossiping about what she had overheard to the Bishop of Ely — who did not need to know about it. She knows how to keep a secret.’
‘I am sure she does,’ said Bartholomew. ‘But what about when all this started to come together — when she came with us back to Cambridge to pass the information she had gathered more recently to the Sheriff? Why did she not tell Michael then?’
‘I imagine she did not have the chance,’ said Langelee. ‘She was hidden away most of the time that she was in Cambridge, and I know Michael did not visit her because Harling had him followed constantly. And she certainly would not have discussed the matter on the open road — she is too experienced an operator to make a silly error like that.’
‘But why, if she knew about this operation in October, did she wait until now to act?’
‘But why did the King bother with you at all?’ pressed Bartholomew. ‘Michael is a good and loyal agent, and the University is under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Ely, not the Archbishop of York. Michael would have been well placed to expose Harling.’
Langelee shrugged. ‘When I was first given this mission, the identity of the mastermind behind all this was not known. It was better that an outsider looked into it. In fact, it was what Dame Pelagia recommended in the report that Thorpe carried to York — she suspected that the scholar she overheard plotting with the Abbess was a high-ranking University official, and considered it prudent to charge some stranger with the task of unveiling him.’
Bartholomew regarded the elderly nun with a new respect. No wonder spying and subterfuge were so deeply ingrained in Michael — not only was it in his blood, but he had probably been given some expert tuition. Bartholomew felt uncomfortable when he thought of how he had inflicted such a wily old character on Matilde and hoped his friend had not learned any bad habits.
Dame Pelagia looked as serene and unruffled as she had been when she had pretended to be asleep so she could overhear what the silly Julianna had to say. He studied her intently, watching the secretive glint in her green eyes, and suddenly felt sorry for the likes of Edward Mortimer and the lay sister for attempting to take on such a formidable opponent. She saw him staring at her and gazed back so that he felt as though she were reading his very soul. She gave him the slightest of smiles before allowing Michael to lead her back to the causeway.
‘Well, that is that,’ said Michael late the following afternoon, stretching his long, fat legs in front of the fire and selfishly stealing the warmth from Cynric. Cynric sighed and moved his stool to the other side of the hearth. Bartholomew sat between them, leaning forward with his arms on his knees and staring into the flames.
Agatha brought another plate of the cakes with the strange, crunchy texture, and Michael began to wolf them down. Bartholomew bit one cautiously, and realised it was pomegranate seeds that lent the cakes their peculiar taste and grittiness. Since Michael seldom chewed anything, the disconcerting cracking as the seeds splintered under the teeth did not deter him from eating them as it did most of the other scholars.
They were sitting in the conclave, the small, pleasant room off the hall in Michaelhouse. The weather had turned from wet to cold, and Master Kenyngham had at last given permission for fires to be lit nightly. The Fellows were in the conclave and the students were in the hall, singing some disgraceful song that had Father William pursing his lips in prim disapproval. He would have gone to silence them, but Langelee was relating the story of Harling and his monumental wickedness to Master and Fellows, and William was reluctant to miss out on such rare entertainment.
Bartholomew listened to the philosopher with half an ear, but, with the exception of some vivid details that seemed to have more to do with amusing his audience than truth, Langelee said nothing Bartholomew did not already know. Michael watched the philosopher and his increasingly sceptical audience, his baggy green eyes alive with sardonic relish, and Bartholomew was reminded of his terrifying grandmother.
‘We are heroes,’ said the monk drily. ‘Or, rather, Langelee is and we played a minor role in defeating one of the most evil minds the world has yet known. But it is all over, so there is no need for you to look so glum. You were even back in Cambridge in time to give your lecture at King’s Hall.’
Bartholomew winced. ‘But not early enough to change. I gave the best and most inspired lecture of my life, and all the audience could do was stare at the state of my tabard. What a waste!’
Michael chuckled. ‘I shall remember that the next time I am asked to speak on metaphysics. You know how I hate that subject! I shall roll around on the river bank so that my appearance distracts the class from my words, and I will be able to tell them anything I like. Have another cake, Matt. You look as though you need a little feeding up. Just like me.’
Bartholomew flexed his aching shoulders and took one of the cakes, wondering why he and Michael felt so battered by their experiences, but why Dame Pelagia had not seemed affected in the slightest. When they had arrived, exhausted, back in the town, the old lady announced pertly that she was going to visit Matilde, and asked Bartholomew to escort her. Warily, he accompanied her through the streets, certain that she would have been a good deal more effective at repelling cutpurses and thieves than he could ever hope to be, and found Matilde waiting in a state of high agitation.
‘At last!’ she cried, flinging herself into his arms. ‘I have been worried to death!’
‘Dame Pelagia is well following her unpleasant experience in the marshes,’ he said formally, startled by the intensity of her reaction. ‘Although we bungled our attempt to rescue her.’
Matilde waved her hand in dismissal, still with one arm looped around his neck. ‘Pelagia knows how to look after herself. It was you I was worried about.’
After Dame Pelagia had related their story in clear and unembellished phrases — so free of exaggeration that Bartholomew later wondered whether she and Langelee had even shared the same adventure — and Matilde had satisfied herself that he was unharmed, Bartholomew had taken the old lady to the Chancellor’s lodgings. Tulyet was to escort her back to the peace of Denny Abbey after a few days’ rest, when he would take the opportunity to arrest the Abbess for her role in smuggling the stolen treasure. Edward had confessed his part in the affair in a wailing voice all the way back to the town and, once again, Bartholomew wondered what Dame Pelagia had done or said to induce his almost frantic desire to confess.
Absently he took a bite out of the cake, and the loud crack of a seed between his teeth wrenched his thoughts back to the present.
‘So Denny Abbey provided a storage place for Harling’s treasure,’ Michael was saying. ‘It was a perfect choice. Who would have thought of looking for stolen treasure in the cellars of a nunnery?’
‘Who would have thought of looking for treasure at all is more to the point,’ said Bartholomew. ‘If your grandmother had not overheard Harling’s conversation with the Abbess that prompted the King to place Langelee undercover here, we might never have guessed what the Vice-Chancellor was doing. We still would have been looking for pedlars of pomegranates and figs.’
‘I do not think so,’ said Michael, somewhat indignantly. ‘Do not try to give Langelee more credit than he deserves. You started to unravel the mystery when Harling tried to throw you in the mill race, and we both guessed about the treasure when we put all the clues — my new cross, the chalices at Valence Marie and the gold cake-plate at Denny Abbey — together. Neither Harling nor Langelee told us about that — we worked it out on our own.’
‘I suppose so,’ said Bartholomew. ‘It all happened so quickly, though. We had too little time to discuss it. We should have spent less time charging around and more time thinking.’
Michael gave him a playful poke with his foot. ‘Enjoy your victory, and do not dwell on what might have been,’ he preached. ‘As far as King and Bishop are concerned, it is another job well done on our part.’ He looked distastefully to where Langelee still entertained the Fellows with his tale of daring and danger, the exploits becoming increasingly outrageous as the level of wine in his goblet fell, and sniffed. ‘It is a pity Langelee was not implicated in all this. I still do not like him.’
‘He is going to ask the Archbishop to release him from his service so that he can stay here to teach philosophy,’ said Bartholomew. ‘He finds a scholar’s life exciting compared to that of a mere agent. Perhaps we should exchange posts. I have had enough of spies and intrigue.’
‘You always say that,’ said Michael.
As they had been speaking, the volume of the students’ singing had been gradually rising, and Bartholomew saw that Alcote and Father William would not countenance their vulgarity much longer. He left his fireside stool and went to warn them to keep the noise down. Gray stood on the high table with a rug shoved up his tabard and a piece of rolled up parchment in his hand, leading his friends in a grotesque parody of Michael conducting his choir. Bartholomew hid his amusement and watched Gray jump from the table somewhat sheepishly.
‘He looks just like Brother Michael, do you not think?’ piped Deynman, brightly. The other students groaned and Gray gave him a withering look. Bartholomew raised his eyes heavenward and went back to the conclave, closing the door behind him.
‘Langelee has just offered us a repeat performance of his adventures in the Fens,’ said Michael with a grin, watching the burly philosopher taking a break from his labours as he crammed one of Agatha’s cakes into his mouth.
‘What, again?’ asked Bartholomew without enthusiasm. ‘He has only just finished enthralling us the first time.’
‘He is not a man for false modesty, apparently,’ said Michael. ‘And so he will relate once more the tale of how he single-handedly saved the kingdom, starting as soon as Cynric has replenished the wine in his audience’s goblets.’
‘That is rash of him,’ remarked Bartholomew. ‘There will be discrepancies between the story he just told, and the one he will tell again. He will never recall all the lies he has already spoken. Father William will be on him in an instant, and will expose him as a fraud.’
‘I thought as much when I persuaded him to accede to the Master’s request for the tale to be repeated,’ said Michael smugly, stretching his hands to the fire.
Bartholomew laughed. ‘Dame Pelagia would approve of that.’
‘No,’ said Michael, musing for a moment. ‘She would consider it too unsubtle.’
Bartholomew laughed again, and looked back to where Langelee was raising a wine bottle to his lips — a bottle of smoked glass, just like the ones that had killed Armel, Grene, Will Harper and Katherine Mortimer, and had dragged Bartholomew and Michael into investigating the poisoned wine with such dire consequences.
Bartholomew’s stomach began to churn as he realised, with absolute certainty, that Harling had been a good deal more clever than they had supposed. Michael was wrong: the horrible events of the past few days were not over! Harling had not been fooled for an instant by Langelee’s duplicity and had not been surprised in the least that he had been followed into the Fens — he had known Langelee would not kill Bartholomew and Michael! He had told Langelee to return to Michaelhouse to await payment. Part of the payment must have been a bottle of wine — in a smoked glass bottle — the last of the six that Sacks had stolen! Harling had lied, and it had not been smashed in the fight with Sacks at all. It was his insurance that Langelee would die, even if he escaped the final confrontation in the Fens.
The students’ singing in the hall raised to a crescendo once more, drowning out Bartholomew’s warning shout. Langelee paused to listen to something Kenyngham was saying, and then brought the bottle to his mouth again to remove the cork with his teeth. The cork! Suddenly, the whole issue of the poison became horrifyingly clear. Grene and Armel had died instantly, yet Philius had merely become ill. The poison was not in the wine — it was soaked into the stopper! While Philius had ingested some of the poison washed from the neck of the bottle as it had been poured, Armel and Grene had either drawn the stopper from the bottle with their teeth, or had put their lips to the neck of the bottle to drink.
Just as Langelee was about to do.
‘No!’ he yelled, leaping to his feet.
Langelee paused again, but it was nothing to do with Bartholomew. He was paying attention to Kenyngham, and the physician’s voice was drowned out by the students laughing and cheering in the room next door. Michael watched curiously as Bartholomew tried to push past Father Paul to reach Langelee. The blind friar Paul stumbled, and grabbed at Bartholomew to steady himself. The bottle was inches away from Langelee’s mouth, and Bartholomew could not extricate himself from Paul’s grip.
As he struggled to push Paul away, he felt something hard in his shirt pocket. Tulyet’s lemon! He drew it out and hurled it with all his might, aiming to strike the bottle from Langelee’s hand.
The throw went appallingly wide and smashed through one of Michaelhouse’s newly installed, and much admired windows. The other Fellows leapt to their feet in shock, while Langelee dropped the bottle as he ducked away from the missile that sailed past his head. He gazed at Bartholomew in bewilderment, his mouth hanging open. Master Kenyngham turned to Bartholomew in horror.
‘Matthew!’ he cried. ‘Our lovely glass!’
‘Well done, Matt,’ muttered Michael, sardonically, from his chair near the fire. ‘Our one chance to rid ourselves of the appalling Langelee, and you go and save his life!’
The following day Bartholomew threw himself into his teaching to take his mind off the events of the previous week. He and Michael had successfully resolved the deaths of Armel, Grene, Philius and Isaac; removed any suspicion that the town was trying to kill the University’s scholars with poisoned wine; Harling was dead and his accomplices either killed or in Tulyet’s care; Rob Thorpe was under lock and key; and the merchant smugglers were suitably subdued. Yet Bartholomew felt anything but satisfaction. He fretted over Edith’s grief over Rob Thorpe, and was disturbed that a man like Harling, who had given the University his loyalty and energies for so many years, should suddenly turn on it with such bitterness.
When the bell rang to bring an end to the day’s lectures, Bartholomew felt drained, and trailed apathetically after his students to the hall for dinner. Kenyngham was spending the day with Chancellor Tynkell and Langelee at St Mary’s Church, writing the official report about Harling that would be sent to the King, and Father William was due to preside over the midday meal. Bartholomew’s spirits sank at the prospect of food eaten in silence, and long graces, during which each of the Franciscans would take it in turns to say more than a few words. When he saw the friars carrying various books and scrolls with them from which to read, his appetite began to wane, and he decided to risk their displeasure and miss the meal altogether.
He skulked in his room until all the scholars were in the hall, and then began to walk across the yard to the gate, intending to buy one of Mortimer’s pies and take it to eat in the deserted water meadows behind Peterhouse. He was startled to hear his name hissed urgently from Michael’s room on the floor above. He looked up, and saw Michael leaning out of his window, beckoning frantically to him.
He climbed the wooden stairs to the room that Michael shared with three Benedictine undergraduates, and pushed open the door.
Michael sat on his bed with a small strongbox open on his knees. ‘Is anyone about?’
Bartholomew shook his head. ‘They are all in the hall. What are you doing?’
‘I had to pack up Eligius’s possessions this morning,’ said Michael. ‘They need to be returned to the Dominicans at Blackfriars in London. While I was in his room I came across this box. No one knows I have it, but I need a witness to what I have found.’
‘No!’ said Bartholomew vehemently, beginning to back away. ‘I have had enough of University politics! Choose someone else as your witness.’
‘Matt!’ exclaimed Michael in exasperation. ‘Look!’ He held up a handful of small scraps of parchment, each bearing a few words of writing. Bartholomew regarded them blankly. ‘The voting slips from the chancellorial election,’ Michael explained. ‘And almost every one of them bearing Harling’s name. Here is yours.’
Curious, despite his reservations, Bartholomew stepped forward and saw that Michael was right. In the box on the monk’s lap were dozens of the small scraps of parchment that had been used by the University Fellows to vote for their favoured candidate as Chancellor. Bartholomew leaned down and took a handful of them, leafing through them quickly. He exchanged a glance of puzzlement with Michael, and then inspected the piece that bore his name and Harling’s.
‘So?’ he asked, nonplussed. ‘You said Eligius and Kenyngham counted the votes. Why should they not be in Eligius’s room?’
‘Because the ballot slips from chancellorial elections are stored in the University chest in St Mary’s Church tower,’ said Michael. ‘When you expressed doubts last week about the validity of the election, I went to look at them. Or I thought I did. I confess I was surprised when mine showed I had voted for Tynkell, when I distinctly remember writing Harling’s name. It crossed my mind that you might have changed it, since you took my vote to St Mary’s Church because I was ill. But of all the people I know, you are the last one to do something so dishonest. And you have always said you preferred Harling to Tynkell.’
Bartholomew let the parchments fall from his fingers. ‘Eligius and Kenyngham falsified the election?’ he asked, stunned. He looked at the slips scattered on the floor. ‘You are saying that these are the originals, and that there is a second set — a forged set — in the chest at St Mary’s Church?’
Michael nodded. ‘That is exactly what I am saying. And this subterfuge was no spontaneous act, either — writing out a new set of election slips must have taken considerable foreplanning. You remember I had a fever on the day of the election that you said was caused by overeating? The reason I had overeaten was because I had been sent three large apple pies the day before. By Father Eligius.’
‘You think Eligius doctored them somehow to make you ill?’
Michael nodded. ‘With hindsight, yes, I think he did. Not with something very terrible, but with some potion to put me out of action for the day.’
‘I wondered why you were prepared to continue to consider him a suspect when all the evidence pointed to Bingham,’ said Bartholomew. ‘But why would Eligius want to cheat on the election results? And what of Master Kenyngham? Surely he would suspect something was wrong?’
‘Not necessarily,’ said Michael. ‘Usually, one person reads out the names, while the other keeps a tally. Eligius must have done the reading, while Kenyngham did the adding. If Kenyngham had expressed surprise at any of the votes, Eligius could simply have shown him the slip he himself had written out prior to the election. Kenyngham is far too much a man of integrity ever to have asked anyone why he voted in a certain way. He would have been the perfect partner for Eligius’s cheating.’
‘But why?’ asked Bartholomew again. ‘Did Eligius admire Tynkell so much?’
‘I imagine it was more a case that he disapproved of Harling,’ said Michael. ‘Harling was among those of us who exposed that business of the false relic at Valence Marie. Eligius believed that relic to be genuine right up to his death.’ He held up a scroll. ‘Here is Eligius’s diary. He bemoans the wrong done to his College by the discrediting of the relic only the day before he died. He even mentions that he proposed to discuss the possibility of its reinstatement with the Countess when she visited the following day. And here, in an entry made last autumn — just before the election that Harling lost — he records a discussion with Tynkell, in which Tynkell agreed to allow Valence Marie to display the relic if he were elected Chancellor. Essentially, Eligius arranged to have Tynkell elected so that the relic would be returned to Valence Marie.’
Bartholomew sat on one of the beds in the cramped room and rubbed his eyes. ‘This is terrible, Brother! It means that just for the sake of those wretched bones — that we proved beyond a shadow of a doubt did not belong to a martyr — Harling was cheated out of a position that was rightfully his, and was led to all this murder and crime.’
Michael nodded. ‘Poor Harling thought he did not have the support of the scholars. The reality is that he had a vast majority of votes. People liked him, and knew he would make us a good Chancellor.’
Bartholomew sighed. ‘So what shall we do now? Harling is dead; we can hardly reinstate him.’
‘There is nothing we can do,’ said Michael. ‘Can you imagine what kind of scandal would ensue if it were known that our Chancellor of the past several months was fraudulently appointed? All the writs and charters issued by him would be rendered invalid, and the University would lose a fortune in property. And the students whose degrees were conferred by the Chancellor would have them deemed null and void. Chaos would ensue. All we can do is hope that either Tynkell makes a good Chancellor, or that he is so disastrous we can easily rid ourselves of him.’
‘But he obtained his office by cheating,’ said Bartholomew. ‘We cannot allow him to retain it.’
‘There is nothing to suggest that anyone other than Eligius knew of the deception,’ said Michael. ‘I feel certain that Tynkell is unaware of it. When it was declared that he had won, I am told he looked more startled than anyone else in the church. He had agreed to stand only because it was necessary for there to be two candidates for an election. He had no real hopes for success and all he really wanted was the name of his poor hostel to become better known among the University community.’
Bartholomew recalled Tynkell’s reaction as Kenyngham announced the result of the election, and was certain Michael was right. Tynkell’s face had registered a strange combination of horror and shock when he had been pronounced the winner. It was an expression that had been mirrored in the faces of many other scholars in the church, including Harling’s. ‘So are you suggesting that we should forget all this?’
Michael nodded and closed the lid on the box, securing it with a large lock. ‘Only you and I know, so I think it best that we keep the knowledge to ourselves. Unless it serves our purpose to reveal it at some point in the future,’ he said with a conspiratorial grin.
‘Your grandmother is quite a lady,’ said Matilde to Michael, as he sat in her house with Bartholomew that evening drinking spiced wine.
‘I know,’ said Michael with pride. ‘Her aim was as true and strong as it was when she won a knife-throwing contest at the Tower of London — against some of the finest knights in the country — when she was only seventeen.’
Bartholomew suppressed a shudder, and decided he would not want to make an enemy of a nun like Dame Pelagia.
‘Are you certain Harling is dead, Matthew?’ asked Matilde. ‘I would not like to think of him returning to wreak revenge on us all.’
‘I am certain,’ said Bartholomew. ‘The blade pierced his heart. And, anyway, I saw him buried today in St Michael’s churchyard. Of course, if he is the Devil Langelee claims him to be, that will not be much of an obstacle to him.’
Matilde and Michael gazed at him in horror.
‘Matthew!’ breathed Matilde fearfully, glancing towards the door as though she imagined Harling might crash through it at any moment. ‘Do you think he will come back?’
‘No!’ said Bartholomew, astonished that they should take him seriously. ‘Of course not. It was a joke.’
‘Not a very funny one,’ said Michael disapprovingly. ‘I have known many stranger things to happen in this town than dead men rising from their graves, and so have you.’ He shuddered, and sketched a blessing in the air, as if to ward off Harling’s evil spirit.
‘So all is well again?’ asked Matilde uncertainly, sipping her wine as her eyes went once more to the door.
Michael pursed his lips. ‘I would not go as far as that — we still have Langelee in our midst.’ He gave Bartholomew an unpleasant look. ‘Thanks to you.’
Bartholomew grimaced and wondered how long Michael would remind him of the fact. They sat in silence for a while, watching the flames creep slowly over a damp log.
‘Let us go back to when you snatched Langelee from the jaws of death,’ said Michael to Bartholomew eventually. ‘There is something I do not understand. How did you work out it was the stopper, and not the wine, that was poisoned?’
‘The Gonville cat,’ said Bartholomew. ‘It smashed the bottle and drank the wine with no ill effects, yet the rat died. That detail had been bothering me for some time. When I saw Langelee tip the bottle to draw the stopper with his teeth, I realised that I had made the assumption that both cat and rat had drunk the wine. They had not. The rat had gnawed at the cork stopper. Mortimer had been about to pull the stopper from the bottle with his teeth, too, and Armel, the apprentice down the well, and Grene did the same — or drank from the bottle itself. That was why Philius did not die: he drank wine that had been poured and diluted with other ingredients for the weekly purge that Isaac made for him.’
‘It was lucky you happened to have a lemon in your pocket,’ remarked Michael. ‘A fig or a handful of currants would not have worked nearly as well.’
‘But a handful of currants would not have smashed Master Kenyngham’s beloved window,’ said Bartholomew ruefully. ‘And I would not have to pay for its repair.’
‘True,’ said Michael archly. ‘So next time perhaps you will be a little more selective before you attempt to save someone’s life so selflessly. Langelee is a lout. Harling did right to leave him a gift of his wine. But I still cannot believe Langelee was so stupid, or so greedy, as to have attempted to drink it after all that had gone on.’
‘Did Langelee not offer to pay for the window?’ asked Matilde, surprised. ‘It would have been the least he could do.’
‘He did not,’ said Bartholomew. ‘He will not even agree to re-examine Bulbeck on account of his being ill when he took his disputation.’
Michael’s eyes gleamed with humour. ‘Just before we left to come here, he asked me if I would persuade you to let him borrow your copy of Aristotle’s
‘I hope you told him to go and buy his own,’ said Matilde indignantly.
‘I said its hire for a week would cost him the price of a window,’ said Michael, leaning forward to refill his cup with spiced wine. ‘He said he would seek another copy.’
Bartholomew sighed. ‘What a nasty business! And what has been gained from it? The town is in disgrace for smuggling; Edward Mortimer and Rob Thorpe are awaiting trial; I have lost my cloak and gloves; and we are stuck with Langelee — unless Julianna can come up with a plan to spirit him away. Perhaps I should have a word with her and see what we can devise.’
Matilde stood and presented him with a neatly wrapped package. ‘Edith gave me some cloth to sew this for you.’
Bartholomew looked at the warm, dark cloak with surprised pleasure, but then tried to pass it back.
‘I cannot take such a fine thing from you,’ he said reluctantly.
Her face fell. ‘Why not? Can you not accept a gift from a friend?’
‘That is not what I meant,’ said Bartholomew quickly when he saw he had offended her. ‘I am not good at looking after clothes — you heard what happened to the cloak Paul lent me. I would be afraid to wear it lest I damaged it.’
She smiled. ‘If you tear it, you will just have to come to me to have it mended. And at least it is long enough to hide that dreadful red patch on your leggings.’
Later, as they walked down the High Street on their way back to Michaelhouse, Michael poked Bartholomew in the ribs.
‘She likes you,’ he said.
‘She likes you, too,’ replied Bartholomew.
Michael shook his head impatiently. ‘You know what I mean.’
‘Michael, she is a prostitute,’ said Bartholomew quietly. ‘There could be no future in such a relationship. An occasional indiscretion might be overlooked, but a longstanding affair with one will do more than raise a few scholarly eyebrows.’
‘Where is your evidence of her harlotry recently?’ asked Michael. ‘She is said to be particular in her customers, but I have discovered no one who has secured her favours for a long time now. Edith believes Matilde allows the rumours to persist because she finds them amusing, but that there is no truth in them any longer.’
‘But what about all the other prostitutes she mingles with?’ asked Bartholomew. ‘How would she know them if she were not in the same business?’
‘I imagine they come to her for advice,’ said Michael. ‘They trust her: she is a sensible woman. My grandmother has a great respect for her. You might do a lot worse, Matt.’
Bartholomew stopped and looked back up the road to Matilde’s small house. On the upper floor, lamplight gleamed yellow through the shutters before it was doused. He turned away and walked back to Michaelhouse.