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The lost prophecies : a historical mystery / by the Medieval Murderers ; Bernard Knight ... [and others].

By: Medieval Murderers.
Contributor(s): Knight, Bernard | Knight, Bernard, 1931- | Sansom, C. J | Morson, Ian | Jecks, Michael | Gregory, Susanna, 1958- | Gooden, Philip | Knight, Bernard [author.] | Gregory, Susanna.
Material type: materialTypeLabelBookPublisher: London : Simon & Schuster, 2008Description: vii, 418 pages ; 24 cm.Content type: text Media type: unmediated Carrier type: volumeISBN: 9781847370921 (hbk.); 1847370926 (hbk.); 1847370934 (pbk.); 9781847370938.Subject(s): Prophecies -- Fiction | Blessing and cursing -- Fiction | Great Britain History Mediaeval period, 1066-1485 Fiction | Detective and mystery stories | Great Britain -- History -- Medieval period, 1066-1485 -- FictionGenre/Form: Historical fiction. | Detective and mystery fiction.DDC classification: Rental Fiction Review: "A mysterious book of prophecies written by a sixth century Irish monk has puzzled scholars through the ages. Foretelling wars, plagues and rebellions, the Black Book of Bran is said to have predicted the Black Death and the Gunpowder Plot. Some believe it foresees the Day of Judgement. But is it the result of divine inspiration or the ravings of a madman?" "A hidden hoard of Saxon gold. A poisoned priest. A monk skinned alive in Westminster Abbey. Only one thing is certain: whoever comes into possession of the cursed book meets a gruesome and untimely end." "The Lost Prophecies is the fourth series of gripping medieval mysteries from the authors of The Tainted Relic, Sword of Shame and House of Shadows."--BOOK JACKET.
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Enhanced descriptions from Syndetics:

Amysterious book of prophecies left by a sixth century Irish monk has baffled scholars through the ages. Foretelling wars, plagues and rebellions, the Black Book of Bran is said to have predicted the Black Death and the Gunpowder Plot. Some believe it foresees the Day of Judgement. But is it the result of divine inspiration or the ravings of a madman?

A hidden hoard of Saxon gold. A poisoned priest. A monk skinned alive in Westminster Abbey. Only one thing is certain: a gruesome and untimely end awaits all who possess the cursed book.

"A mysterious book of prophecies written by a sixth century Irish monk has puzzled scholars through the ages. Foretelling wars, plagues and rebellions, the Black Book of Bran is said to have predicted the Black Death and the Gunpowder Plot. Some believe it foresees the Day of Judgement. But is it the result of divine inspiration or the ravings of a madman?" "A hidden hoard of Saxon gold. A poisoned priest. A monk skinned alive in Westminster Abbey. Only one thing is certain: whoever comes into possession of the cursed book meets a gruesome and untimely end." "The Lost Prophecies is the fourth series of gripping medieval mysteries from the authors of The Tainted Relic, Sword of Shame and House of Shadows."--BOOK JACKET.

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Excerpt provided by Syndetics

ACT ONE Exeter, February 1196 When three golden beasts did reign by bishop's rule, A bearded champion fought oppression's realm, His secret horde defied the edicts cruel, But all was lost beneath the budding elm. It was an unusual case for coroner Sir John de Wolfe -- not so much because it was a find of treasure-trove but that it occurred not a hundred paces from his dismal chamber in Rougemont Castle. He was more used to ranging the length and breadth of the county of Devon to view some corpse, sometimes riding for three days on a journey to the more remote parts. His clerk brought the news to him on a winter morning when the frost lay hard on the ground and even the sewage lying in the city streets was frozen solid. Thomas de Peyne, his thin cassock swathed in a threadbare cloak of grey serge, pushed his way through the curtain of sacking on the doorway at the top of the winding stairs cut into the walls of the tall gatehouse. The little priest's narrow face, with pointed nose and receding chin, was blue with cold, but he managed to control the chattering of his teeth to blurt out the exciting news. 'Crowner, they have found money in the outer ward!' De Wolfe, sitting behind his rough trestle table, almost the only furniture in that spartan chamber, looked up irritably. 'What, has some man-at-arms dropped a penny?' he asked cynically. 'No, there are many coins, hundreds of them - and some gold too!' squeaked Thomas, rubbing an almost frozen dewdrop from the end of his nose. 'Ralph Morin is there. He asked that you come and look, for it will be coroner's business.' There was a voice from the other side of the room, where Gwyn of Polruan, de Wolfe's officer and squire, was sitting in his usual place on the cold stone of a window embrasure, apparently impervious to the icy wind that whistled through the slit. 'What's going on, Crowner?' he rumbled in his deep Cornish accent. 'This is the fourth such find since Christmas!' John rose to his feet and pulled his grey wolf-skin cloak closer about his long, stooped body. As tall as Gwyn, but much leaner, he looked like a great crow, with his jet-black hair, hooked nose and dark stubble on his leathery cheeks. 'After the first two hoards that were found, folk seem to have caught gold fever,' he growled. 'Half the town have found shovels and are digging into every mound they come across.' As the three men moved to the doorway, Thomas added: 'This wasn't a mound. They were digging a new well for the garrison families living in the outer bailey. It seems they had not gone down more than an arm's length when they found it.' At the bottom of the stairs, which came out in the guardroom at the side of the entrance arch, they were joined by Gabriel, the sergeant of the men-at-arms who formed the garrison of Rougemont. The castle was so called from the red colour of the local sandstone from which it had been built by William the Bastard a mere two years after the Battle of Hastings. Gabriel was a grizzled veteran of some of the same wars in which John and Gwyn had fought, and they were old friends. As they walked down the drawbridge over the dry moat that separated the inner from the outer wards of the castle, they saw a small crowd clustering around a wooden tripod, fifty paces off the steep track that led to the outer gate. Most of them were soldiers, huddled in thick jerkins against the cold, but a few hardy wives were peering from behind them, and a brace of ;children, apparently oblivious to the winter chill, were racing around and shouting. The outer ward, meant to be the first line of defence for the castle, was where most of the families of the garrison lived, their huts forming a small village inside the city walls. Striding over the sparse grass and frozen mud, de Wolfe and his companions reached the excavation, where the circle of onlookers opened up to let them through. Here, another large man was issuing orders to the soldiers who were digging the well. He was Ralph Morin, the castle constable, responsible to the king for the defence and maintenance of Rougemont, for it was a royal possession, not the fief of a baron or manor lord. A tall, erect man, he had a forked beard that gave him the look of Viking warrior. 'Another box of money, Crowner! How many more?' he said, echoing Gwyn's words. De Wolfe stooped to peer into the hole that had been dug, about five feet wide. The wooden tripod reached a few feet above his head, supporting a pulley and a rope to lift buckets of soil and rock as the well was deepened. However, it had had little use as yet, as only a small pile of waste lay nearby. The hole was barely three feet deep, and in the bottom he could see the broken lid of a wooden chest, with some coins glinting beneath the smashed boards. 'Have any been taken out?' he demanded, his first concern being to prevent any pilfering. 'Show Sir John what you found,' ordered the constable, prodding a burly soldier who was leaning on a pickaxe. The man bent down and picked up a crumpled woollen cap, which he handed to the coroner. 'I put a few in there after my pick went through the box, sir,' he grunted. 'Bloody hard work it was, cracking through that frozen ground!' he added, eyeing the coins in his hat hopefully. John ignored the hint and tipped the dozen coins into his hand for a closer look. All were silver pennies, with the exception of one larger gold coin. 'These are Saxon, I'm sure,' he said, but then held them out towards Thomas de Peyne, who seemed to have a wide knowledge of almost everything. The clerk peered at them short-sightedly and poked them around with a spindly finger. 'Indeed they are, Crowner. From different mints and different monarchs -- there's Ethelred and Athelstan.' 'What about the gold one?' growled Gwyn. 'That's a bezant, isn't it?' 'It's certainly a foreign coin, but I'm not sure from where,' admitted Thomas. Always keen to show off his learning, he added: 'Bezants are named after Byzantium, where lots of gold solidi came from many years ago.' 'Right, let's get that box up,' commanded de Wolfe, handing the empty cap back to the disappointed soldier. He pulled it on his head, spat on his hands and lifted the pick. 'Easy with that! Get it out in one piece if you can!' snapped the constable. Together with another man, the soldier lowered himself into the shallow excavation, and between them they levered up the metal-bound box and in a few minutes had it on the ground at the coroner's feet. It had no lid or lock, being a sealed case bound with iron straps, which had rusted so badly that they could easily be snapped with the point of the pick. The elm boards had softened after more than a century in the wet soil, and once the bands were broken the smashed top could be pulled apart to reveal the contents. 'Must be a good few hundred in there,' muttered Ralph Morin. The box was full of silver coins, many stuck together by the damp tarnish that covered them. When John dug his fingers into the mass, he saw a few more gold bezants and, at the bottom, some gold brooches and buckles. The onlookers gaped and drooled at the sight of such riches, which for most of them would equal several lifetimes of their daily wages. 'What do we do with it -- the same as the others?' asked the constable. The previous hoards had all been taken to the sheriff for safekeeping until an inquest could decide what was to be done with the finds. He had the only secure place for valuables, in his back chamber in the keep of the castle. One of the sheriff's main functions was to collect the taxes from the county and deliver them in person every six months to the Exchequer in Winchester, so several massive strongboxes were stored in his quarters under constant guard. On the constable's orders, two men carried the box up to the keep, with Morin marching close behind them to make sure that it reached the sheriff intact -- though like de Wolfe, he wondered if an odd coin or two had already found its way into the pouches of the men digging the well. The coroner and his two assistants followed them to the sheriff's chamber, which was off the large main hall in the two-storeyed keep at the further side of the inner ward. Henry de Furnellis, an elderly knight with a face like a bloodhound, had been appointed sheriff the previous year as a stopgap when the former sheriff, John's brother-in-law, had been dismissed in disgrace. Now Henry looked with a pained expression at the muddy box lying on a table in his room. 'Another bloody burden to carry to Winchester and to explain to those arrogant Chancery clerks,' he complained to his elderly clerk, Elphin. Together, the coroner and the constable sorted out the coins into piles and placed the bezants and the five gold ornaments alongside them. Thomas, who always carried his writing materials in a shapeless shoulder bag, sat with parchment, ink and quill and recorded the exact details of the treasure. 'Nine hundred and forty pennies, twenty-eight gold coins, three gold brooches and two gold cloak-rings,' he intoned when he had finished. 'A nice little collection, and not much doubt that it now belongs to King Richard,' declared Ralph Morin. De Furnellis nodded his old head wisely. 'No, as it was found within his own castle! Can't very well belong to anyone else, can it, John?' De Wolfe cleared his throat, his usual response when he had some doubts. 'I suppose not, but I'll still have to hold my inquest for a jury to decide if it was accidentally lost or whether the owner intended reclaiming it at some future date.' The sheriff cackled. 'He'll have a hell of a job doing that now, John. He's probably been dead for a century!' Gwyn pulled on his drooping ginger moustaches as an aid to thought. 'Why are we getting all these finds in and around Exeter?' he rumbled. 'Especially this one inside the castle itself?' John de Wolfe managed to beat the know-all clerk to the answer. 'It wasn't a castle then, that's why. Almost all these hoards were hidden by the Saxons when they knew that Harold had lost at Hastings and realized that our Norman forefathers would soon be marching towards them. Many of them buried their money and valuables, hoping to retrieve them later.' As he paused to draw breath, Thomas jumped in. 'King William put down the rebellion in Exeter two years after Hastings - then, to make sure it wouldn't happen again, he knocked down fifty houses to make room for this very castle.' Gwyn nodded slowly. 'So these things today were probably buried in what would have then been someone's back yard!' 'A rich someone's back yard, by the looks of it,' added the sheriff. 'I wonder what happened to him?' There was silence for a moment, as although the despoliation of Saxon England had been carried out by their grandfathers or even great-grandfathers, there was still some unease at the memory that a few thousand Normans had slain or dispossessed almost all the Saxon nobility and wealthy landowners. Even though well over a century of intermarriage had diluted the blood, all of them except Gwyn considered themselves Normans. 'As I said, he certainly won't be coming back to claim them,' grunted the sheriff. After his clerk Elphin had added his signature to the bottom of Thomas's list as a witness to the exact value of the hoard, the coins were placed in a large leather bag, together with the ornaments carefully wrapped in a cloth. The whole lot was then locked away in one of the massive treasure chests, which carried clumsy but effective locks on the iron bands riveted around them. 'I'll hold my inquest this afternoon,' promised John. 'Gwyn, round up all those soldiers who were digging the well and get a few more to make up a score for a jury. We'll hold the proceedings in the Shire Hall - and I'll have to have that sack to show them, to make it legal.' The coroner's trio left the keep and went back to the gatehouse, this time hovering over a charcoal brazier that Gabriel had burning in the guardroom, which slightly warmed the chilly air. A pitcher of ale was produced, and one of the men-at-arms stuck a red-hot poker in it and passed around some mugs of the warm but still sour liquid. Thomas declined his, as ale was not to his taste, preferring cider, even at freezing point. 'At least this last hoard was found by sheer chance, not from a message from beyond the grave like the first one!' said Gwyn. The previous month, a few hundred silver pennies and some bezants had been found after the cathedral archivist had come across a sheet of parchment tucked between the pages of an old volume of chants. This bore a brief message from someone called Egbert to his son, indicating that, fearing the imminent arrival of the Norman invaders, he had buried the family wealth at the foot of a preaching cross in the churchyard of Alphington, a village just outside Exeter. The archivist, Canon Jordan le Brent, had reported this to his bishop, and a search soon revealed the truth of the claim. Unfortunately, Bishop Henry Marshal immediately confiscated the hoard on the grounds that it had been found on Church property and even forbade the coroner to hold an inquest upon it. Unsure of the legal position - as few people, including the king's ministers, had any clear idea of the extent of a coroner's powers - de Wolfe had had to submit, though he intended complaining to the Chief Justiciar, Hubert Walter, when he had the chance. Unfortunately, the Justiciar, who now virtually ruled England since the king was permanently absent fighting the French, was also the Archbishop of Canterbury, so it would be difficult for the Primate of the English Church to overrule one of his bishops. 'Ever since that scrap of vellum came to light, we have been plagued by people wanting to search the library at the cathedral,' complained Thomas. He had a particular interest in the matter, since he worked part time in the archives above the Chapter House just outside the cathedral's South Tower. When he had been restored to the priesthood the previous year, his uncle, Archdeacon John de Alençon, had arranged for him to be given a stipend for saying daily Masses for the souls of certain rich men who had left bequests for the purpose. Another task, which was dear to Thomas's heart, was to sort and catalogue the disorderly mass of material in the library, in anticipation of a move to a new Chapter House, for which the bishop had already donated a part of the garden of his palace. 'Do people come in off the street to search the records?' asked Gabriel, unused to the ways of the ecclesiastical community. 'They probably would if they could read!' replied the little clerk. 'No, it's the priests who seem to have caught this gold fever, especially since that hoard was found in a churchyard. We've had a few literate clerks sent by their merchant masters to snoop around, but they don't get admitted. Unfortunately, we can't stop the parish priests coming into the library.' 'I presume no one has found anything more since that one scrap of parchment?' asked the coroner. His scribe shook his head. 'No, even though they've been through almost all the books and rolls now, often not reading anything, just looking between the pages or shaking them to see if anything drops out!' Thomas shook his scrawny head in disgust, though it was not clear to his master if this was at the greed of his fellow priests or their failure to benefit from the wealth of scholarship that passed through their hands. Just as the ale was finished, they heard the distant cathedral bell calling for Terce, signalling the tenth hour at that time of year. John de Wolfe reluctantly rose from near the brazier and pulled his cloak tightly around him, fixing the upper corner to his opposite shoulder with a large silver pin and clasp. He pulled on a felt coif, a close-fitting helmet that covered his ears and tied under the chin. 'Come on! Freezing or not, it's hanging day,' he said brusquely. 'We have three fellows to see off. In weather like this, they may be quite glad to go!' They collected their horses from the lean-to stables against the wall of the inner ward and left the castle, their steeds treading cautiously on the icy surface of the steep slope down to the East Gate. With the coroner on his old warhorse Odin and Gwyn on his big brown mare, Thomas looked a poor third as he rode awkwardly on his thin nag behind them. It was not that long since he had been persuaded to give up riding side-saddle like a woman. They went around outside the walls via Southernhay to join Magdalen Street and rode away from the city towards the village of Heavitree, near where the gallows was situated, a long high crossbar supported at each end by tree-trunks. Usually, there was a crowd of spectators, with hawkers selling pasties and sweetmeats, but today the icy weather had limited the onlookers to a handful of wailing relatives. The coroner had to attend to record the names and property of those executed, as any land or possessions of felons was forfeit to the king. Today there would be thin pickings, thought John cynically, as one of the men was a captured outlaw owning nothing but the ragged clothes he wore and the other two were little more than lads, caught stealing items worth more than twelve pence, the lower limit for the death sentence. De Wolfe and Gwyn sat on their horses to watch, glad of even the slight body warmth that came off the large animals, while Thomas shivered as he sat on a tree-stump at the edge of the road, his parchment roll and writing materials resting on a box. The three condemned men did their own shivering in the back of an ox-cart, their wrists bound to the rail behind the driver as he drove it under the three ropes hanging from the high crossbar. One of the half-dozen men-at-arms who had escorted the cart down from the castle shouted out the names to Thomas, as he untied the men and made them stand on a plank across the sides of the wagon while the hangman, who was a local butcher, placed the nooses around their necks. A smack on the rump of the patient ox sent the cart lumbering forward, and in a trice the three victims were kicking spasmodically in the air. The relatives of the two younger ones dashed forward and dragged down on their thrashing legs, to shorten the agony of strangulation, but the lonely outlaw had to suffer the dance of death for several more minutes. The sensitive Thomas always averted his gaze and concentrated on his writing, but John and Gwyn watched impassively, having seen far worse deaths a thousand times over, in battles and massacres from Ireland to Palestine. When the performance was over, they left the gallows and returned to town for their dinners, for it was approaching noon. The coroner went back to his house in Martin's Lane, one of the many entrances to the cathedral Close, and sat at table in his gloomy hall with his equally gloomy wife Matilda. In spite of a large fire burning in the hearth, the high chamber, which stretched up to the roof beams, was almost as cold as the lane outside, and his stocky wife wore a fur-lined pelisse over her woollen gown and linen surcoat. Conversation was always difficult, as Matilda rarely spoke except to nag him about his drinking, womanizing and frequent absences from home, although it was she who had persuaded him to take on the coroner's appointment as a step up in the hierarchy of Devon's important people. He knew that his description of today's hangings would be of no interest to her, but he thought he might divert her with the news of another find of treasure. Matilda's main concerns were food, drink, fine clothes and, above all, the worship of the Almighty, but money was also acceptable as a topic of interest. Like the others, she remarked on the frequency of the discoveries in recent months. 'These are all part of the ill-gotten gains of those Saxons, I suppose,' she said loftily. Although she had been born in Devon and had only once visited distant relatives across the Channel, she considered herself a full-blooded Norman lady and looked down on the conquered natives with disdain. One of her major regrets was being married to a man who, although a Norman knight and former Crusader, had a mother who was half-Welsh, half-Cornish. 'I hear that a number of priests have been searching the cathedral archives, hoping to find another parchment leading to a hoard like that found in Alphington churchyard,' said John, carefully avoiding the fact that it was Thomas who had told him. Even more than her dislike of Saxons, Matilda detested his clerk for being a perverted priest, even though his unfrocking had been reversed when the allegations that he had indecently assaulted a girl pupil in the cathedral school in Winchester were proved to be false. 'Good luck to them,' she declared firmly. 'The Church should benefit as much as possible from the riches of those heathens!' Her husband forbore to point out that the Saxons had been Christians for centuries before the pagan Viking fathers of the Normans ever set foot in Normandy. Mary, their cook and maid-of-all-work, came in from her kitchen-shed in the back yard to clear their wooden bowls of mutton stew and to place trenchers before each of them on the scrubbed oak boards of the table. These were stale slabs of yesterday's barley bread on to which Mary slid thick slices of fat bacon with a heap of fried onions alongside. In these winter months, the range of available vegetables and meat was very limited, and most were stored or preserved from the previous autumn, as were the wrinkled apples that were offered as dessert, supplemented by dried figs and raisins imported from southern Aquitaine. Eating was a serious business, and de Wolfe did not attempt to reopen the conversation until they had finished and were sitting on each side of the fire with a pewter cup of Anjou wine apiece. 'This treasure today will certainly go to the king, as it was found inside Rougemont,' he said with some satisfaction. 'The bloody bishop won't get his hands on this lot!' Matilda scowled at him from under the fur rim of the velvet cap she wore against the cold. 'It would do far more good in the coffers of the cathedral,' she snapped. 'It will be wasted on more troops and arms for Richard to fight that futile war against France. Better if he came back to England and tended to his own dominions!' John headed her off by mentioning the Chief Justiciar, as he knew Matilda revered the archbishop almost as much as the Pope. 'Hubert Walter does an excellent job in Richard's stead. He has been a good friend to us over the years.' He knew this would mollify his wife, who loved to think that she was close to the high and mighty. Hubert Walter had been the Lionheart's second-in-command in the Holy Land, and de Wolfe had earned his friendship and respect there during the Crusade. Having adroitly warmed up his wife's mood, if not her body, he finished his wine and rose to his feet. 'I must go back to Rougemont now. There is an inquest to be held on that treasure.' 'And I will be at my devotions in St Olave's Church for much of today, John,' declared Matilda as he left. 'And after the inquest I will be down at the Bush Inn visiting my mistress!' said John - though he said it under his breath after he had shut the door behind him. Unsurprisingly, the jury at the short inquest decided that the finds from the new well were treasure-trove, as the original owner must have buried them deliberately in the expectation that he would one day recover them - as opposed to an accidental loss from a hole in a man's purse or pocket. In that case, the booty would belong to the actual finder, but obviously this could not apply to a sackful of coins and jewellery. Thomas de Peyne had recorded the findings on his rolls, to be presented to the king's justices when they eventually arrived in Exeter to hold the next Eyre of Assize. When the proceedings were finished, he went back to the cathedral to get on with his other work. The archives and library were also the scriptorium and exchequer of the cathedral, where clerks laboriously wrote out all manner of documents, from orders of services to the financial accounts of the diocese. The library formed the upper floor of the Chapter House, a wooden building adjacent to the huge church, where the daily meetings of the Chapter were held. This was the controlling body of the cathedral, consisting of the twenty-four canons, who included the four archdeacons, as it would be some years before Exeter followed other cathedrals in appointing a dean. The benches for the members were on the ground floor, below the lectern from which a 'chapter' of either the Gospels or the Rule of St Benedict was read, giving the meeting its name. In the corner was a steep stairway up which Thomas de Peyne now climbed to the large chamber that contained the mass of documents which he had the task of organizing. A dozen high desks filled the centre of the room, around a charcoal brazier which stood on a slab of slate on the wooden floor. Its heat barely warmed the atmosphere, as the shutters on the unglazed window openings were wide open to admit light to the handful of shivering clerks who were working at the desks. Around the walls were sloping shelves on which to rest the heavy books, the more valuable of which were chained to the wall, such as the Exon version of King William's Domesday Book. Other shelves and pigeonholes contained a mass of parchment rolls, and a number of boxes and chests on the floor were filled with more documents. Thomas stood and stared at the collection with a ;mixture of pride and exasperation. An intelligent man, he had been schooled in Winchester and was unusually well informed about all manner of topics, from history to theology, from geography to the classics. He was delighted to be given a free run of all these literary treasures, but the task of putting them all in order was a daunting prospect. Many of the smaller tracts and loose parchments had never been listed, and Thomas suspected that some of the boxes below the shelves had not been opened in decades. He had appropriated a corner desk to himself, where he had begun the marathon job of cataloguing each item before putting them in order on the upper shelves. One of his problems was that he could never resist reading through anything that seemed interesting, which slowed down his progress considerably, even though it added to his already compendious knowledge. Now he settled himself on the high stool at his desk and began sorting through the pile of documents that he had selected the previous day, working steadily for the next hour. 'How are your labours going, Thomas?' A deep voice dragged him from his efforts to read the crabbed Latin script of a long-dead priest who had listed the donations for the building of a shrine in the cathedral some sixty years before. The speaker was Jordan le Brent, the canon who acted as archivist and master of the scriptorium. He was an amiable, elderly man with a devotion to learning and history similar to that of the coroner's clerk. 'Well enough, sir, though slowly,' replied Thomas. 'At least we seem to have at last been spared all those who came searching for maps to buried treasure!' The older man shook his tonsured head ruefully. 'Perhaps not, my son. This new find we heard about today might well fire up even more interest in hidden silver.' Thomas crossed himself fervently. 'Dear God, I hope not! They have disturbed enough of my papers already, scrabbling through all this.' He waved a hand at the dusty shelves and the mouldering parchments. 'The lust for silver and gold seems ingrained in mankind,' pondered the old canon. 'No wonder greed is classed as one of the seven deadly sins. Even my own brethren are not immune, for I found one of my fellow canons rooting through the shelves yesterday, when you were away on coroner's business.' He avoided naming the person, but Thomas knew that many of the canons were fond of an expensive lifestyle, far removed from the austere rules laid down by St Benedict and St Chrodegang. 'We should limit those who can have access to our archives, canon,' said Thomas earnestly. 'Some of these old parchments are brittle and faded. They could be damaged beyond repair and much information about olden days be lost for ever.' Jordan le Brent nodded slowly. 'I agree that we should keep out the clerks of burgesses and merchants, but we cannot bar clergy in the upper orders. But I will ask the proctors to keep an eye on the place at night and make sure the door is locked.' He wandered away and Thomas went back to his pleasant labours. Meanwhile, down in the Bush Inn in Idle Lane, where the city sloped steeply down towards the river, John de Wolfe was enjoying a quart of best ale and the company of his mistress Nesta, the pretty Welsh redhead who owned the tavern. He sat at his usual table near the firepit, where the cold weather was being defeated by a large heap of crackling logs, spitting sparks on to the floor rushes which had frequently to be stamped out by old Edwin, the one-eyed potman. Nesta was taking a few minutes off from harrying her two maids, who were cooking in the kitchen-shed at the back of the inn. John told her all the details of the find of treasure that morning, and inevitably she also brought up the curious fact that so many finds had been made in recent weeks. He explained about the Saxon panic of a century or more ago, when much of their wealth had hurriedly been hidden in the hope of saving it from the invaders. 'But why is it being found now, for it's been lying there for long enough, God knows!' she said. They spoke in Welsh, her native language and one that John had learned at his mother's knee. In fact, Gwyn's native Cornish was close enough for all three to converse in the Celtic tongue, as did a sizeable proportion of the country people in both Devon and Cornwall, who spoke Western Welsh. 'Such hoards have been turning up regularly for many years, Nesta,' he said. 'The one just before Christ Mass was a chance find, but then this note being found in the cathedral that led to the discovery in Alphington has started a kind of madness amongst the population. A number of mounds have been dug into around the city, but all they found were ancient pots and a few bones.' 'Thomas tells me that many people have been hampering his work in the cathedral by demanding to search the books there,' she said rather indignantly, for the little priest was a favourite of hers. 'Thank God so few can read!' said John fervently. 'Otherwise half the population of Exeter would be rooting through the archives.' Only about one in a hundred were literate, this being confined to those in holy orders, both ordained priests and deacons, as well as those in the lower clerical orders, who also provided the clerks to merchants and the authorities. De Wolfe dallied at the tavern for as long as he could, enjoying the company of his vivacious lover, but as early dusk fell he had to tear himself away to go home, where he would be expected for supper, a newfangled idea of Matilda's, who always wished to be abreast of new fashions. The noon dinner was most people's main meal of the day, but she insisted on eating again in the early evening, as did the nobility. As he left, he eyed the ladder at the back of the taproom which went up to the loft, where Nesta had a small bedroom. 'I'll try to get back later this evening,' he said hopefully. 'I'm sure Brutus will be ready for a walk by then!' At about the eighth hour, Matilda went up as usual to her solar at the back of the house, to be prepared for bed by her snivelling French maid Lucille. This was the signal for John to snap his fingers for his old hound Brutus, who was his invariable alibi for nocturnal expeditions down to the Bush. They left through the heavy front door, which opened directly on to the lane, and the dog ambled off to visit his favourite smells and mark them with a cocked leg. The coroner's house in Martin's Lane was a mere twenty paces from one of the entrances to the cathedral Close, the wide space around the huge church. The narrow passage connected the Close to High Street, and John's was one of the only two dwellings on the west side, a farrier's stables lying opposite. John had on his heaviest cloak and pulled a broad-brimmed pilgrim's hat low over his black hair, as there was a keen east wind. Though there was a curfew after dark, this 'couvre-feu' applied mainly to damping down domestic fires for the night, as in a city where most of the buildings were wooden, a severe conflagration was an ever-present danger. People still went about the streets, though tonight few ventured out into the icy conditions and the almost total darkness, as heavy cloud covered the moon. As he entered the Close, the only light came from a flickering pitch brand stuck in an iron ring over the distant Bear Gate. However, de Wolfe was familiar with every step of the way and set off down the diagonal path that threaded through the grave mounds, open burial pits and piles of rubbish that disfigured the area. He could hear Brutus scrabbling after something a few yards away, where a rat was probably rooting in a pile of discarded offal. The only other light John ever saw here on his nocturnal adventures was the dim lantern of a cathedral proctor doing his rounds. These were men in the lower clerical orders who patrolled the precinct and tried to keep order, as the Close was ecclesiastical territory, a 'city within a city' where the writ of the sheriff and burgesses did not run, the ultimate authority being the bishop. Tonight he saw no one and was past the great West Front of the cathedral and halfway to the Bear Gate when he heard a cry from somewhere on his left. Immediately, his dog gave a sharp bark, then a deep growl. John was familiar with every nuance of Brutus's voice and knew that something was seriously amiss. Then he saw a faint flicker of yellow light from the direction of the South Tower and a crash as if something had flung a door back against a wall. He began walking as fast as he could in the darkness, being careful of obstacles as this was not one of his usual paths. Brutus had no such problem and bounded ahead, still growling. Suddenly, the growl turned into a yelp, and, somewhere in the gloom ahead, pounding footsteps hammered on the flagstones. They rapidly receded towards the far exit into Southgate Street, and all John could see was a momentary glimpse of a figure as it passed beneath the flaming torch and vanished from sight. Pursuit was pointless and instead he hurried as fast as he could towards the light, using it as a marker. With only a few stumbles, he reached it to find a horn lantern on its side, but the candle still lit within. Picking it up, he found himself at the door of the Chapter House, which was wide open. 'Brutus, where the hell are you?' he called, and almost immediately the old dog appeared at his knee, giving a whine that sounded almost apologetic. Holding the light closer, John saw that there was a bloody graze on the hound's flank, though it did not appear to be serious. 'The bastard kicked you, did he?' he asked, fondling the dog's ears. 'I'll make him pay for that when I find him!' Brutus whined again, with a different note this time, and pointed his lean muzzle towards the door. John took the hint and, pulling his dagger from his sheath on his belt, held up the lantern with the other hand and advanced cautiously into the building. His feeble light failed to reveal all of the large room, where the canons and their vicars met each day, but as he moved towards the centre of the flagstoned floor Brutus whined again and moved ahead of him towards the far corner, where steep wooden stairs led up to the library. As he approached, he saw that a crumpled shape lay at their foot, a man dressed in a black cloak over a plain clerical cassock. His legs were spread-eagled and his trunk was half-turned as if he was asleep. As John knelt by the inert body, he saw that the head had been shaved into a tonsure, but by the stout staff lying alongside the man it was clear that this was one of the proctor's men, a night guard who had been patrolling the precinct. On his bald patch, a deep gash ran from side to side, dark blood still welling slowly from the wound. The coroner feared that the man was already dead, but when he gently turned him on to his back he heard shallow breathing, though he was deeply unconscious. 'He probably fell down the stairs,' he muttered to his hound, but Brutus made no comment. 'So who was that bloody fellow who kicked you and ran, eh?' There was nothing de Wolfe could do other than go for help. Using the lantern, he loped off as fast as he could to find someone. Unfortunately, this was the quietest time in the cathedral, being the hours between afternoon Vespers and the midnight Matins, when most priests and their acolytes were either eating, drinking or sleeping. John went into the nave of the cathedral through the small door in the West Front, but he could see no one up in the dimly lit presbytery beyond the choir screen. He hurried out again and decided to go to the proctor's hut in the Close, between two of the small churches that stood in the cluttered precinct. Here he found another proctor's man, huddled over a small fire, and within minutes they had both returned to the Chapter House, the proctor ringing a brass handbell vigorously to summon help. Within minutes, two vicars-choral and a pair of secondaries, who were young men aspiring to be priests, appeared from somewhere in the recesses of the buildings and began fussing over the injured guard. 'Better take him to the archdeacon's house,' suggested the coroner, who knew that his friend John de Alençon, one of the four archdeacons, was a calm, sensible man who would procure the best aid for the stricken man. Using one of the benches, the four younger men carried the wounded man away, the other proctor lighting their path with a pair of lanterns. 'I'll come after you very shortly,' promised John. 'I need to look around here first.' Left alone, de Wolfe told Brutus to lie down while he cautiously climbed the stairs, the lantern and dagger still in his hands. There was no sound from the scriptorium above, but he wanted to make sure that no second intruder was lurking there. He made a slow circuit of the upper chamber, holding the small lantern high in the air, but he soon satisfied himself that the place was empty. He noticed that a number of books had been pulled from the shelves on to the reading boards and that some wooden boxes had been dragged into the outer aisle, their lids open and the contents in disorder. Near the top of the stairs he saw a larger lantern lying on its side, the candle extinguished. Picking it up, he opened the small door that formed one of the sides of thinly shaved horn that allowed the light to escape. John sniffed at it and smelled the pungent odour of recently burned wax, guessing that the lamp had been used by whoever had run away from the building. As he came back down the stairs, the feeble rays of his own lantern showed a pool of drying blood where the head of the proctor had lain, but now he noticed something lying on the flagstones nearby. It must have been concealed by the injured man's body when he lay there, but now de Wolfe bent and picked it up. It was a thin but heavy book, almost the length of two of his hands and about an inch thick. He brought the lantern close to it and saw that it was covered in worn black leather, with a dozen or so parchment pages inside. As he could not read any of it, he put it under his arm and, having satisfied himself that there was nothing else to be seen or done until daylight, he pulled the outer door shut and with a rather subdued Brutus at his heels made his way to Canons' Row on the north side of the Close, where the houses of a dozen of the most senior clergy stood. In one of them lived his friend the Archdeacon of Exeter, one of four archdeacons that served the diocese of Devon and Cornwall under Bishop Henry Marshal. A wiry, grey-haired man, John de Alençon lived a simple, ascetic life, unlike some of his portly fellow canons, and John found that the injured proctor had been laid in the priest's spartan sleeping room, which contained nothing but a hard cot, a stool and a large wooden cross on the wall. 'How is he?' asked the coroner as soon as he entered. The archdeacon and one of the vicars who had come to the Chapter House were there, standing over the bed with worried expressions on their faces. 'He is very poorly, John. I have sent the other proctor up to St John's Priory to ask Brother Saulf if he will come down at once,' replied de Alençon. The nearest thing Exeter had to a hospital was the small priory of St John near the East Gate, which had a sickroom that offered help to the poorer people who could not afford to visit an apothecary. One of the Benedictine monks, a Saxon named Saulf, was skilled in physic and was often called upon in emergencies. There was nothing the two Johns could do to help, so they went into another small room, where the archdeacon did his reading and writing. They sat at a table, and de Alençon's servant brought them a jug of wine and some pewter cups. As they sat and drank while waiting for the monk, John told his friend what had happened and showed him the book that he had found. 'I'm sure this is to do with this accursed treasure fever,' he said. 'It looks as if someone was rifling the library and was disturbed by the proctor. Whether he was assaulted or fell downstairs in a scuffle remains to be seen, but either way there is a dangerous man loose somewhere in the city.' The archdeacon took the book and looked at it with curiosity. 'This is very ancient, John. I've never seen the like of it.' 'What's it all about?' asked the coroner, curious to know what was so important that it may have cost a man his life. De Alençon slowly turned the pages, shaking his head slowly in bewilderment. 'It seems to be a collection of quatrains of some kind. Written in excellent Latin and beautifully penned.' 'What the hell's a quatrain?' demanded the coroner. He sometimes tended to act the bluff soldier, partly to cover up his lack of learning. 'It's a short verse containing four lines, which rhyme alternately. As these are in Latin, they wouldn't rhyme in our Norman-French, John -- but the meaning is still just about understandable.' 'But what's the subject they concern?' persisted de Wolfe. 'Is it a religious tract of some kind? Gospels or prayers?' The archdeacon looked wryly at his friend. 'They seem far removed from prayers -- almost the opposite! From the couple I've glanced at, they seem like forebodings of catastrophe. God knows what they mean, and I say that most reverently.' He turned the yellowed pages over again, shaking his head in wonderment. 'It reminds me most of the Book of Revelation of St John -- and few clerics understand that, though many pretend to.' 'But why would anyone wish to steal this most obscure book -- and maybe even kill for it?' asked de Wolfe. De Alençon shrugged. 'In desperation, perhaps? If you are right and this is part of the treasure-hunt fever, then having broken into our Chapter House and discovered nothing definite to aid his search, these obscure verses must have been the best he could manage to find that might speak of hidden treasure.' The coroner mulled this over for a moment. 'Is there anyone who can tell us more about this book? Perhaps knowing something of its origins might lead us to whoever wanted to steal it?' The archdeacon handed the book back to de Wolfe and made the sign of the cross on himself, as if to ward off any evil influences from having handled it. 'The obvious person is Jordan le Brent, our worthy archivist,' he suggested. 'Perhaps he knows where the book came from, though the disorder in that library is shameful. I hope that my nephew Thomas is able to improve matters with his labours there.' John nodded as he rose to take his leave. 'My clerk is another who may have some ideas about this volume -- he is a fount of information on almost every subject under the sun.' It was the next morning before the coroner could show the book to Thomas de Peyne, and by that time he had had the news that the injured proctor had died, so he now had a killing to investigate, whether deliberate or by misadventure remained to be seen. Together with Gwyn, they sat in his chilly room above the gatehouse, huddled over a small brazier that Sergeant Gabriel had sent up to them. After de Wolfe had related the story, he handed the book to his clerk, who took it almost reverently. 'This is very ancient indeed, Crowner!' he said, carefully studying the covers and the contents. 'The style of binding suggests that it must be centuries old, and the manner of the penmanship is also archaic. It somehow reminds me of several Gospels that I have seen which came from Irish monasteries.' 'But what the hell is it all about?' demanded Gwyn gruffly. Thomas turned the pages of thin animal skin and read a few of the verses, his lips moving soundlessly as he traced the words written in ink that was still jet-black after all this time. 'Latin quatrains, about a score of them. But no preface or dedication, nor any hint as to who the author may have been,' he mused. 'But I can see why my uncle suggested that the thief may have thought that treasure was involved...listen to this!' Thomas cleared his throat and read out two lines from the middle of the book: 'Where sand and rock prevail beneath the sun, Then gold galore bedecks the shrivelled king.' There was a silence, broken by Gwyn belching and announcing that it meant nothing to him. 'You great Cornish barbarian!' complained the clerk 'I merely quoted it to show that someone feverishly searching in the light of a candle for clues to treasure might grab this as the best chance he was likely to get.' 'We need another opinion on this,' said John. 'Your uncle suggested that Canon Jordan might have some ideas.' Thomas nodded vigorously. He was greatly beholden to his uncle for getting him the post as coroner's clerk after his disgrace in Winchester and more recently as a part-time archivist under Jordan le Brent. 'Perhaps we could have a meeting with him this morning, master. And perhaps I could suggest that Brother Rufus could be included, as he served for some years in Ireland and is very knowledgeable about religious matters over there.' The monk he mentioned was the amiable Benedictine who was the chaplain to Rougemont's garrison, possessed of insatiable curiosity but also with a wide experience of the world. The coroner agreed, and Thomas went out into the icy streets to arrange the meeting for an hour before noon, after the morning devotions in the cathedral had finished. De Wolfe and Gwyn made their way to St John's Priory, not far from the bottom of Castle Hill, to see if Brother Saulf could throw any more light on the nature of the dead proctor's injuries. The body was lying on the floor of a small room off the single ward, awaiting removal to the cathedral. 'As he is in holy orders, albeit minor ones, they want him back there to lie before the altar in a side chapel until he is buried,' explained the monk. He pulled back the sheet that covered the corpse of the proctor to reveal the injured scalp. John and Gwyn, well used to wounds, peered at the laceration running across the shaven tonsure. 'Right on top of his head,' grunted Gwyn. 'Difficult to land right there and not bruise himself elsewhere, if he fell down the steps.' John felt the edges of the wound, which were reddish-black and turned inwards against the shattered bone underneath, which moved ominously against his probing fingers. 'Cracked like an eggshell,' he muttered. 'I'd say he was hit on the head first and fell afterwards.' Saulf, the gaunt Saxon monk, had also seen plenty of violence and agreed with the coroner. 'Could be an iron bar or somesuch.' De Wolfe rose to his feet. 'He must have used some tool to break the locks on those boxes in the library. That might have been the weapon.' As the assault had been in the precincts of the cathedral -- and upon one of their own servants - John knew that the ecclesiastical authorities, especially the bishop, would fight against interference by the secular power in the shape of a coroner's inquest. He was not inclined to fight tooth and nail against this and decided that the clear circumstances allowed him to concentrate on finding the perpetrator, rather than confirming the obvious nature of the proctor's death. They left the tiny infirmary and went back to Rougemont, where de Wolfe related to Henry de Furnellis what had happened. The sheriff was concerned at the news of a violent death, but as usual was content to let the coroner carry on with the investigation. 'You feel that this was definitely related to this mania for seeking buried treasure?' he asked. When John confirmed his belief, Henry shook his head in wonderment. 'I can't understand the greed of common people,' he said sadly. 'I had a message only an hour ago that yet another mound had been dug into out Crediton way. That's the third this week!' The belief that there was treasure inside the numerous piles of earth and stones that dotted the countryside had been translated into frantic, though futile, activity since the first hoard had been discovered. Thomas returned to say that both Canon Jordan le Brent and Brother Rufus would meet them before dinner at the tiny chapel of St Mary in the inner ward of the castle, where Rufus was the incumbent. The ¬sheriff decided to join them, and at the appointed hour they assembled in the little church. The earthen floor was surrounded by a stone shelf meant for the old and infirm to rest upon, and here they sat while the archivist and the chaplain inspected the mysterious Black Book. Jordan le Brent, a large, slightly obese priest, studied the covers and carefully turned the pages with an expression of increasing disbelief. 'To think that this has been in my archives for many years without my being aware of it!' he breathed. 'True, I have never had the time to delve through all those boxes of muddled documents, but it was remiss of me to miss finding such a unique book as this.' As he handed it on to the Benedictine, a rather impatient John wanted answers. 'Have you any idea what it is and where it came from, canon?' 'No, Sir John, I have no idea! I inherited all the mass of material in the library some ten years ago. Much of it has been there since the present cathedral was begun in 1114, but I know that some of the parchments and books are even older, inherited from the previous abbey, which stood since Saxon times where the Lady Chapel now lies.' 'But what of its contents?' demanded Henry de Furnellis. 'I hear that they are most mystical and prophetic.' The canon shook his head in despair. 'I cannot make any sense of the few I read just now. They seem to be the product of a fevered mind. I even wonder if they are saintly or devilish.' 'But it must be a work of considerable antiquity?' persisted the sheriff. 'From my long experience of written missives, it has to be at least several centuries since it was written and bound together,' answered the archivist. 'But there is no clue as to who did it and when.' By now Brother Rufus had had the chance to study the book, and he closed it on his ample lap with an air of finality. 'I'm sure I have heard of this before,' he said in his mellow voice. 'Brother Thomas here is right, I think it came from Ireland.' He uttered this with such confidence that the others turned to him in expectation, as he continued. 'I spent three years with the troops in that miserable island and visited many places, especially religious houses. I heard a thousand stories from those garrulous and superstitious Irish, and one of them was about a mystical book from long ago.' With such an attentive audience, Rufus was in his element. 'Some of the older monks I met looked over their shoulders and crossed themselves when they mentioned it, for it seems that it was suppressed by the Irish Church and hidden away for centuries, then vanished altogether. No one knew where exactly it came from, but it was somewhere in the bog-ridden centre of the island.' Thomas listened with rapt attention, as a combination of history, religion and mysticism was like manna from heaven to him. 'Why was this book so shunned by the Church, Rufus?' 'It was called the Black Book of Brân, who presumably was the monk who wrote it back in the mists of time. No one I had heard of had seen it, nor even met anyone who had, but it was held in awe, being a compendium of prophecies, some of which had already been fulfilled.' 'Who was this Brân?' asked the sheriff. Thomas de Peyne piped up to answer this one from his compendious knowledge of history. 'In Celtic mythology, both in Ireland and Wales, he was a giant, the son of Llyr, the sea-god. He waded across the Irish Sea, towing his enemies' ships behind him.' 'Sounds a bit like Gwyn here,' commented the sheriff dryly. 'The head of Brân the Blessed is said to be buried on Tower Hill in London, where it defends these islands against invaders,' added Rufus. 'Didn't do much of a job, then,' muttered Henry, thinking of the Romans, the Saxons and his own Normans. Rufus appeared to have exhausted his knowledge of the mysterious Irish book and further questions could draw forth no more information from him. Jordan le Brent looked disturbed and took the book back from Rufus with reluctant hands. 'It sounds as if this may be a dangerous relic,' he said sombrely. 'I doubt if it should remain in our cathedral if it has this bad reputation from our Irish brothers-in-God.' Thomas looked concerned, as he did not want to lose such an intriguing item before he had a chance to study it in depth. 'What should be done with it, then, canon?' he asked. 'Surely it has too great a historical value to be destroyed! It may be part of the heritage of our early Christian Church.' The archivist shook his head. 'No, that might be sacrilege, but it is not for us to decide. I will suggest to the bishop that it be sent to Canterbury -- let them ponder it and possibly send it on to Rome. The Holy Father has a secure vault in the basements of the Vatican where suspect volumes may be carefully hidden from the sight of man.' Young Thomas had his own ideas about that, but at this moment he wisely kept them to himself. In the Bush that evening, John de Wolfe sat at his usual table by the firepit, which on such a bleak night was full of glowing logs. He had his arm around his auburn-haired mistress, and on the other side of the table Gwyn sat huddled in his frayed leather jerkin, with a quart of ale and a large meat pie. 'So what help did we get today from that coven of priests, Crowner?' grumbled the big Cornishman. 'Didn't get us any nearer discovering who belted that proctor over the head.' John had already told Nesta the story of the Black Book of Brân and as a strongly religious Celt herself, with a reputation for being somewhat fey in matters of magic, she was intensely interested. 'Whether or not it helped you, it is a miraculous find,' she said. 'I only wish that I could read, for there must be things of great importance written there.' 'It may be the work of the devil, not the angels!' grunted Gwyn, himself a superstitious Celt. 'But what use is it to us in finding a killer?' Nesta contributed some of her usual common sense. 'Stealing such a book means that it was a person who could read Latin. Otherwise, the thief could not even see that treasure was mentioned in one of these strange verses.' John squeezed her closer, proud that his mistress had such a sharp mind. 'It also means that it could not have been some rough villain sent by a more learned rascal, for as you say he would not be able to find useful documents unless he could decipher them.' 'So are we looking for some priest?' asked Gwyn before swilling down the rest of his ale. 'A clerk, certainly, but not necessarily a priest. Almost no one, except a few rich barons and knights who have been to a school, have the gift of reading and writing, apart from those in holy orders.' Ordained priests and deacons were far outnumbered by a whole range of lesser clerics, ranging from sub-deacons and lectors down to mere doorkeepers. Many clerks worked not in the Church but in the courts and commerce, as they formed the elite five per cent of the population who were literate. 'I suppose it narrows it down,' grumbled Gwyn. 'But that leaves us with a few hundred clerks in the city alone -- and God knows how many elsewhere in Devon!' Nesta looked up at her lover's stern face, the jaws darkened by black stubble, as it was some days since his last weekly shave. 'John, how are you going to pursue this killer?' she asked, her big hazel eyes full of concern. 'As Gwyn says, you have so many possible culprits, but no clue as to where to start.' De Wolfe tapped the fingers of his free hand on the edge of the rough boards of the table, his frown indicating deep thought. 'Something the sheriff said today gives me an idea,' he said at last. 'If you can't catch a rabbit by running after it, you must set a trap!' It might be an exaggeration to say that Thomas de Peyne was ecstatic, but he was certainly blissfully content at being both back in the bosom of his beloved Church after his time in the wilderness - and with a literary problem before him. He was crouched over his desk in the cathedral library, reading by the light of a solitary candle, oblivious for once of the biting cold. The whole Chapter House was deserted at this eighth hour of the evening, and normally the timid little clerk would have been nervous at being alone in a cavernous chamber where a man had been done to death not many hours before. But his absorption in the pages of the Black Book left no room for fear, as he avidly read through the pages of vellum which bore the strange verses. Further discussion with Brother Rufus and Canon Jordan earlier that day had brought them to the conclusion that the book had probably been brought to Exeter in the early years following the Norman invasion of Ireland, which began in 1170. 'We were not all honourable men in that campaign,' the chaplain of Rougemont had boomed. 'There was a great deal of looting by foot soldiers, mercenaries and indeed the nobles themselves. The churches, abbeys and priories were not always immune, I fear. This book may have been gathered up during the pillaging of some religious house.' The old archivist had agreed and said that he recalled that several local knights who had returned from that campaign had donated various gifts to the cathedral, probably spurred by a guilty conscience. 'Anything vaguely literary may well have been dumped up in the library and forgotten,' he said ruefully. Now Thomas was going through the mysterious book, carefully digesting each obscure quatrain and trying to make sense of the messages they must contain. There were two verses on each sheet of parchment, neatly centred on the pages. The jet-black ink looked fresh, though the brittleness of the leaves and the patina on the leather casing of the wooden covers betrayed its age. For several hours the little priest pored over the verses, and all he managed were questions rather than answers. Who was this Brân who had written the quatrains? Where and when had he done it? And, most important, why had he felt impelled to write them? Thomas puzzled over the references to plague and Tartarus' hordes and catamite kings -- all of which meant nothing to him. Other questions slid unbidden into his mind. Were these actual prophecies and, if so, were they in chronological order? And what time span did they cover -- a hundred years or a millennium or eternity itself? And how could any reader identify whether a disaster -- for that was what they seemed to foretell -- would occur in his lifetime, as opposed to in the past or future? When he had finished reading the twenty-four quatrains through for the third time, Thomas closed the book and sat back, his eyes closed as he tried to assemble his thoughts. One thing was clear to him, even though he felt guilty about his possible duplicity. Canon Jordan seemed adamant that this book might be an evil influence and so should be surrendered to higher episcopal or even papal authority. If that were done, the Exeter archives would lose something of possibly great religious and academic value. There and then, Thomas decided that he would make a fair copy himself, so that even if Brân's original was taken from them, the library would at least have a record of the quatrains for further study. Surely, he told himself, even if there were some demoniac properties in the Black Book, they could not be transferred over to a mere transcript on virgin parchment. Spurred by the thought that the archivist and the bishop might act quickly and dispatch the book to Canterbury before he had time to study every verse, Thomas set to that very minute in making a copy. There was ample parchment lying around the library, as the treasury clerks and those who had to write the timetables and orders of service for the precentor kept a store in their desks. Thomas went around the room and took a couple of sheets from each place, then settled down with a fresh candle to begin his copying. He reckoned it would take him until tomorrow evening to finish the verses, given his other duties next day, then he could bind them himself. The simple materials of wood, leather and cord were kept in the library for this purpose, and Thomas was quite capable of threading a dozen pages between two thin sheets of wood and gluing leather across them. Once he had a copy, then he could concentrate on trying to decipher their meaning at his leisure, for this presented a challenge that his nimble mind relished. Late into the night, he remained hunched over his desk, the only sounds being the scratch of a goose quill and the occasional sniff as his sharp nose became even redder in the freezing air. It was almost midnight when he gave up, to go across to the cathedral for Matins and then back to his lodgings before the next service at dawn. The wide-ranging duties of a coroner included many events apart from investigating sudden and violent deaths. As well as having to hold inquests on finds of treasure, any catches of 'royal fish' -- the whale and the sturgeon -- came within his jurisdiction, as they belonged to the king. But on the day following Thomas's nocturnal labours in the library, John de Wolfe was called to yet another category of his responsibilities. Not fire or rape this time, but a serious assault. These could often prove fatal, given the lack of effective medical treatment, and sometimes coroners would commit the care of the injured victim to the assailant, the reasoning being that the latter had a powerful motive for keeping the man alive, as if he died within a year and a day the perpetrator would be hanged for murder! However, this time the victim was badly bruised and shaken but not in any serious danger of dying. De Wolfe, with Gwyn and Thomas at his side, rode out a few miles east of Exeter to the village of Clyst St Mary in answer to a plea from the manor reeve, the man responsible for organizing the labour force of the hamlet. He had ridden to Rougemont that morning to report that the bailiff had been assaulted by three men the previous evening. The bailiff was the representative of the manor lord, in this case the Bishop of Coutances, who was far away in Normandy. 'The lad who herds the pigs raised the alarm,' said the reeve as he rode alongside the coroner for the last half-mile into the village. 'Simple in his wits, but he knew when something was wrong.' 'You say this was in a field where there was a mound?' demanded John. 'Well, not a field as such, but in the wasteland between the pasture and the edge of the forest. There's a grassy heap the height of a man -- the old wives say it has been there since the days of Adam and Eve, though how they could know that beats me!' 'How could your pig-boy see what happened if it was dark?' objected Gwyn. 'He saw the flickering lights of a lantern and crept up to have a look. The moon was more than half-full last night, so he could see a fair bit. There were three men, digging into the side of the mound, so he ran back to the bailiff's dwelling to tell him.' 'What happened then?' asked de Wolfe. 'Walter Tremble, our bailiff, called me out of my cottage and we went up there to see what was amiss. Sure enough, there were three fellows there, two of them with a pick and a shovel, digging like rabbits. Walter has a short temper and he ran ahead of me, shouting fit to burst.' As they came within sight of Clyst St Mary, the long-winded reeve came to the climax of his story. 'The one with the lantern straightway turned and ran, but the diggers stood their ground, and when Walter reached them they set about him with their tools. He's a big man, the bailiff, but he had no chance against a pick and shovel wielded by two desperate men.' 'Why didn't you go to his aid?' growled Gwyn. 'I did, but I've got a stiff leg and was way behind Walter,' he whined by way of excuse. 'My breathing's not so good either. I'm not much use in a fight. Anyway, these men after beating the bailiff to the ground ran off into the darkness after the first man. I was more concerned about getting aid for Walter than chasing them,' he added virtuously. 'Could you see anything of them?' asked the coroner. 'Were they local men, d'you think?' 'Too dark to see, sir, even with a bit of a moon. But I got the impression that the first one, the one with the lantern, had a long habit on, down to his ankles. I thought he might have been a priest.' 'We'll have to ask the bailiff. He obviously got a lot nearer than you, reeve!' growled de Wolfe sarcastically. They had the opportunity a few minutes later as they were led to the only stone house in the village, next to the church. The parish priest had to put up with a meaner one of timber, but the absent bishop had installed his bailiff in a more substantial dwelling. In a small room off the main chamber, they found Walter Tremble groaning on a feather-filled pallet on the floor, his stout wife hovering anxiously with a hot poultice for the bruising on his chest. He looked a sorry sight, with livid purple bruising down one side of his face, puffy lids closing his right eye and numerous scratches on both arms. However, his injuries did not prevent him from lacing his story with numerous oaths and blasphemies as he told the coroner what had happened. 'They set upon me the moment I approached the bastards!' he mumbled through swollen lips. 'Struck me with a shovel and the handle of a pick before running away into the darkness, the cowardly swine!' He could add little to what the reeve had already said, apart from claiming that the two diggers were large men, dressed in dark clothing, one with a sack around his shoulders. 'What about the one with the lantern?' asked Gwyn. 'That sod was much smaller, but he ran off before I got to the mound,' replied the bailiff. 'He was dressed in black, a long tunic like the one your clerk is wearing.' He nodded painfully at Thomas, whose rather threadbare cassock was slit up the sides for riding a horse. There was no more to be learned from Walter, and with some muttered platitudes about trusting that he would soon be recovered de Wolfe took his leave, asking the reeve to show them where the assault had taken place. On the other side of the village, past the strip-fields that ran at right angles to the track, was an area of meadow, the grass now short and stiff with frost. Beyond that was the wasteland, a large area where trees had been felled to increase the arable area but which still had trunks and roots sticking up as far as the edge of the dark forest. At the top of this slope was a grassy mound, disfigured on one side by fresh red earth thrown out of an excavation a couple of feet deep. 'They didn't get very far down, as we disturbed them,' said the reeve. 'Anyway, they were wasting their time, as my father told me that his father and some other men had dug right through it fifty years ago and found nothing but some old pots and bones.' On the way back to Exeter, John de Wolfe mused on what little they had learned in Clyst St Mary. 'The bailiff will survive, but what happened is part of this mania that is sweeping the district. They'll be digging into molehills next in the hope of finding gold!' Thomas had a question, as usual. 'Are these the same men who attacked the proctor, I wonder?' 'No reason to think so,' grunted Gwyn. 'Every jackass in the county is wielding a spade these days.' 'But they were very violent and both the reeve and the bailiff had the notion that one of them was a cleric,' objected Thomas. 'You may be right, young man,' agreed de Wolfe. 'I think it's time we set that trap I mentioned, but it must be done carefully to catch the right vermin.' That night the coroner's clerk finished his copy of the Black Book and spent until the midnight hour stitching the few pages into the covers. Having spent much of his life with books and documents, he was quite adept at simple assembling and binding. Encasing Brân's book with leather would have to wait until another day, as he needed to get some more oxhide glue from a tannery on Exe Island. After morning services had finished in the cathedral, Thomas could not resist studying the quatrains yet again and gave up his dinner to go back to the library and pore over the obscure verses. He was particularly anxious to see if he could recognize any that might have relevance to the present time, but another two hours' study left him as baffled as ever. Some of the other clerks were very curious as to what he was doing, and as they all knew of the circumstances of the ransacking of the library and the killing of the proctor Thomas had no option but to tell them of the Black Book and to show it to them, as clerics were more nosy and gossipy than most goodwives in the marketplace. Later that day he returned with the glue to sheath the boards in thin black leather, trying to make the copy as similar as he could to the original ancient tome. With the book in a screw-press in the corner of the upper room, to allow the glue to set, he decided to take the original back to his lodgings in Priest Street1, so that he could spend more hours on it that evening. With a couple of candle ends salvaged from a side altar, he once again sat to rack his brains over the strange verses. He shared the small room with a vicar-choral, for, as the name suggested, many of the houses in Priest Street were rented out as tenements to junior clerics. Tonight, his roommate had gone to visit his sick sister in the city, and Thomas was glad of the solitude to puzzle over Brân's prophecies. Once again he carefully read through the two dozen quatrains, searching for anything that might suggest a contemporary meaning. Eventually, he settled on one that with a stretch of imagination might relate to the present time. It was the fifth in the series, and his lips again whispered the words as he read them through once more: 'When three golden beasts did reign by bishop's rule, A bearded champion fought oppression's realm, His secret horde deþed the edicts cruel, But all was lost beneath the budding elm.' Thomas huddled deeper into his thin cloak, as the only firre in the house was in a communal room at the back and the cold seemed to be addling his mind. 'Only the first line means anything to me,' he murmured to himself, wiping a dewdrop from the end of his nose with the back of his hand. '"When three golden beasts did reign by bishop's rule..." Surely that could mean the kingship of our sovereign Richard the Lionheart?' He reasoned that this could refer to the new heraldic device adopted by Richard, showing three golden lions couchant on a red field. And surely the 'bishop's rule' by which they reigned could be Hubert Walter's regency, as the Prelate of Canterbury and Chief Justiciar had been given absolute control of England by the Lionheart, who seemed uninterested in ever returning to his island kingdom. But what on God's earth did the other three lines mean? It could be something that was going to happen during Richard's reign, but that might last another thirty years, if his father Henry's monarchy was anything to go by. And where would it happen, in England or abroad? Exeter was further from London than parts of France, so news of what was happening in the capital percolated slowly and imperfectly down to Devon. Maybe there was some bearded champion rampant at the other end of England, for all Thomas knew. He had a faint glimmer of intuition about 'edicts cruel', as it was common knowledge that the harsh taxation imposed by the king through Hubert Walter was increasingly unpopular everywhere, especially in the cities, where the brunt of the levy was suffered. King Richard's insatiable demand for more money to finance his army fighting to regain lands lost to Philip of France by his brother Prince John was becoming so painful to barons, the Church and common folk alike that whispers of rebellion had been heard here and there. But that still made no sense of the rest of the verse - the 'budding elm' meant nothing to Thomas, nor did the 'secret horde'. He sat brooding at the small table that, apart from one stool and two mattresses on the floor, was the only furniture in the room. Who else could he discuss this with, he wondered? Canon Jordan seemed almost frightened of the Black Book and wanted to get rid of it, let alone discuss its contents. Brother Rufus was happy to talk about it, but Thomas suspected that their already lengthy discussions had exhausted the chaplain's knowledge and ideas. Perhaps the vicar who shared the room might be a foil upon whom he could bounce some ideas? Peter Quinel was not the brightest star in the cathedral's priesthood, but he was an amiable and willing fellow and Thomas looked forward to showing him the verses and asking his opinion. Some time later he heard the outer door opening, one that led from the street into a common passageway to the several rooms. He looked up expectantly, eager to engage Peter in discussion, but the heavy leather flap that closed the doorway of their room did not swing aside. Instead, he heard voices whispering outside, and with some trepidation the little clerk got up to see who was there. As he did so, two men burst into the room, large and menacing in the dim light. With a screech of terror, Thomas backed away, but he was bowled over in the small chamber and fell flying, thankfully across one of the beds. 'There it is! On the table,' growled one of the intruders, grabbing the Black Book. Almost paralysed with fright and expecting to be beaten to death like the proctor, Thomas cowered on the floor, shielding his head with his arms. In a trice, the two men had vanished as quickly as they had come, still muffled up in dark mantles, hoods pulled down over their faces. Whimpering with fear, for he made no claims to be a hero, Thomas staggered to his feet as he heard the street door slam shut. He waited a moment to make sure the assailants had gone, then pushed his way into the passage and started shouting for the other residents, who were all asleep, making the most of the few hours before they had to get up for midnight Mass. A few minutes later, after telling his story of the violent robbery, a couple of the bolder young priests ventured out into the street, but all they could do was to stare futilely up and down the empty lane for the thieves, who had long vanished into the darkness. Next morning the coroner was furious when he heard of Thomas's ordeal and the theft of the old book. He had no particular interest in it as such, other than as a possible lead to the murderers of the proctor, but as it had led to the attack on his clerk's privacy and person, he was angry that an inoffensive little priest should have been exposed to such a fright. 'Are these the same bastards who killed that proctor?' asked Gwyn, who for all his teasing of Thomas was very protective of him against all comers. De Wolfe was pacing restlessly up and down his chamber, his long face creased by a ferocious scowl. 'I saw only one man running away from the Chapter House, but that affair in Clyst St Mary suggests that three of the swine are involved. They seem to operate only at night and wear dark clothing.' He swung around to face his clerk, who as usual sat at the table with a quill in his hand. 'Was there any sign of a third man last night, Thomas?' 'Not in the room, Crowner. There may have been one in the passageway or at the street door, but I did not venture out until they had gone.' 'And nothing about them suggested a priest this time?' The clerk shook his head. 'They wore black, as you said, but not clerical garb -- though I admit my mind was not on such matters during the few seconds they were in the room!' 'You said one of them spoke,' grunted Gwyn 'Was it a voice you recognized?' 'All he said was "There's the book" or somesuch words. It was a local voice, but not particularly coarse like some labouring peasant.' John paced a few more turns around the bleak room. 'The one who attacked the proctor must have been able to read, to pick upon that particular book with a mention of treasure in one of the verses,' he said. 'But last night any ruffian could have recognized a black book without being able to read it.' Gwyn, who was sitting on a window ledge whittling a piece of stick with his dagger, raised another question. 'How could they have known that Thomas had taken the book home that evening?' De Wolfe stopped loping around the chamber to stare Thomas in the face. 'Did you tell anyone about it?' he demanded. Defensively, the clerk stammered that all the other clerks in the scriptorium knew about it and any of them could have seen him put the book into his shoulder bag when he left for the day. 'So this is another priestly connection!' snapped the coroner. 'You clerks all gossip like fishwives in a guttingshed, so any of them might be our clerical thief.' Thomas shrugged. 'I doubt if any of the scribes in the library were involved, for they could have stolen the book there or even taken the copy that I left in the press. But, of course, they could have told others outside the Chapter House about it.' John smacked one hand into his palm. 'I'm sure we're looking for a priest, one who has a pair of accomplices. Whether he is one of the cathedral crowd or a parish vicar from the city, there's a bloody priest behind all this!' He stalked to his stool on the other side of the table and sat down, his face screwed up into an expression of deep concentration. 'Thomas, take a leaf of old, used parchment and write in Latin something to this effect!' Half an hour later Thomas de Peyne left the gatehouse tower with a creased and grubby palimpsest in his hand - and a sly grin on his face. Later that morning Thomas returned to the library chamber over the Chapter House and took his newly bound copy of the book from the press. He was pleased with the result, the leather having bonded firmly to the boards without bubbles and the covers opening easily to display the neatly inscribed pages. He took it to his desk and began to study the verses once again but was soon disturbed by several of the other clerks, who sidled up and began enquiring about his well-being after 'the awful experience' of the night before. Inevitably, the word had got around about the attack upon him and the theft of the book, as several of the young clerics also lodged in Priest Street. Though their protestations of concern were mostly genuine, Thomas sensed that they were also fishing for any news of his interpretation of the Black Book, all being well aware that he had made a copy. Conscious of the fact that any of them might have taken the news of the original, deliberately or inadvertently, to whoever had stolen it, he played the role that the coroner had suggested to him. 'I have made some progress, I admit,' he said rather coyly. 'I cannot divulge what it is, of course. It's a matter only for the ears of the coroner and the sheriff.' Ignoring their wheedling to give them some hint of what he may have found in relation to hidden treasure, he went back to the study of his new copy, concealing the pages from their avaricious eyes by hunching his arm over them. Then, with the eyes of his colleagues flicking over him at frequent intervals, he covertly began writing on a sheet of parchment laid alongside the book -- though no one could see that he failed to dip his quill deeply enough into the ink pot, as the document had already been written earlier, back in the gatehouse of Rougemont. After almost an hour, during which he usefully employed his time by once more puzzling over the obscure quatrains, Thomas rose from his stool and, with Brân's copy ostentatiously tucked under his arm, moved to the head of the steps. 'I need the privy,' he murmured to a young secondary sitting nearby as he left the scriptorium for the nether regions. As he went, he made sure that the piece of parchment slipped from between the pages of the book and fluttered to the floor. When he returned a few minutes later, the apprentice priest handed him the fallen sheet with a mumbled explanation that he had dropped it on the way out. Thomas knew from his furtive expression that he had read it and probably already shared the contents with the other clerks. With a secret smile, the coroner's scribe went back to his place and this time returned to his study of the verses in earnest, as they had by now become a challenge to him that he could not resist. 'Do you really think this is going to work, Crowner?' Gwyn sounded grumpy, as faithful though he was he would much rather be sitting by the fire in the Bush, with a mutton chop and a quart of Nesta's best ale, than crouched in St Bartholomew's churchyard in the biting frost. Alongside him in the lee of the little wooden church were John de Wolfe and Sergeant Gabriel, who had hidden four of his men-at-arms at strategic points around the edge of the enclosure. 'We can but try, as I can think of no other way of catching these bastards red-handed,' replied John in a low voice. It was about the middle of the evening and the moon was showing itself fitfully between the masses of cloud that an east wind blew across the sky. The churchyard was mainly rough grass and a few trees, as no burials had taken place here since the cathedral had long ago appropriated all the lucrative funerals to itself. In the centre stood an old plinth on which were the remains of a Saxon cross and this John had used as his bait, reckoning that a similar one in Alphington was now well known as the hiding-place of treasure. 'But why tonight, sir?' asked Gabriel, his voice like a rusty file on a blunt axe. 'They may leave it a week before searching.' 'Never, not in this present mood of hysteria,' said de Wolfe confidently. 'By now those Chapter House gossips will have spread the news amongst all their priestly friends. If any clerical treasure-hunter in Exeter has heard it, he'll be down here hotfoot before any other thieving swine can beat him to it -- and that means tonight!' They settled down again to wait, shivering under their cloaks and jerkins. Gwyn had a striped woollen cap on his unruly ginger hair and a sack wrapped around his shoulders, while the coroner wore an old gambeson under his wolf-skin mantle. The gambeson was a legacy of his fighting days, a quilted coat of padded wool, worn under his chain mail to absorb the blows from a lance or sword. St Bartholomew's was in the poorest section of the city, down in the north-western corner called Bretayne, named after the surviving Britons who had been driven down into a slum area by the invading Saxons centuries before. The churchyard was the only open space in a maze of sordid lanes and alleys, lined by mean huts and hovels, infested by rats, hogs and goats. Realistically, it was probably the least likely place in Exeter where a rich Saxon would have hidden his treasure from the next wave of invaders, but de Wolfe felt that the lure of gold and silver would overrule such logical appraisal. An hour passed and, with limbs becoming cramped and frozen, John began to wonder if his reasoning might have been too optimistic. Gwyn was blowing on his fingers to get some feeling back into them, and the sergeant's teeth were chattering audibly. The coroner was beginning to consider calling off their attempt to trap the treasure-seekers when he heard the creaking of the old gate that led into the churchyard from the lane. Nudging Gwyn and Gabriel to keep quiet, he stared into the blackness under an oak tree that overshadowed the gate, waiting until whoever it was came into the open, where a transient glimmer of moonlight fell upon the path. Like moving shadows, three black figures glided into the light, one smaller than the other two. A tiny crack of yellow light revealed that this man carried a horn lantern whose ill-fitting door failed to mask every glimmer. Many less hard-bitten persons than the trio of old soldiers might have fled at the sight of these silent black figures flitting through an abandoned graveyard. De Wolfe put a restraining hand on each of his companions and hoped that the hidden soldiers would obey their sergeant's orders not to move until commanded. The three ghostly shapes moved silently towards the centre of the overgrown area where the base of the broken cross was half-hidden in weeds. Suddenly, a dim shaft of light fell upon the old stones as the door of the lantern was opened. Faint scraping noises began as shovels were used to push aside the rampant undergrowth around the cross. This was the signal for action, and de Wolfe rapped Gabriel on the shoulder as he and Gwyn stood up. 'Right, men! Seize these fellows!' roared the sergeant. As they began running towards the centre of the churchyard, four other figures erupted from the bushes and converged on the startled men. They attempted a dash for the gate, but were met by solid muscles and were forced down upon the ground amid strident curses and protests. Gwyn grabbed the lantern and held it up as the soldiers pinned the robbers down. 'Who the hell are these knaves?' he roared, giving a hefty kick in the ribs to one who was wriggling violently. The coroner hovered over them like some black hawk, as Gabriel pulled away the hoods from their faces. John did not recognize any of them, but he felt that they did not have the coarse features or rough dress of the usual violent robber. 'I know who this one is, sergeant!' cried one of the men-at-arms in surprise. 'He's the priest from St Lawrence's.' John felt a glow of satisfaction as his theory about a thieving priest was vindicated. If the soldier was right, this was the incumbent of the church of St Lawrence, in the eastern part of High Street. At that moment the man in question was unable to confirm or deny his identity, as Gwyn was helping to pin him to the ground with a large foot placed on his throat. When he was released, he began gasping and gurgling, then launched into a series of lurid oaths unbecoming of a man of the cloth, until the coroner snarled at him. 'What's your name, villain?' 'I am Ranulf de Fougères, an ordained priest of this diocese, damn you!' howled the man. 'Release me and my cousins this instant or the bishop will hear of this!' Gwyn gave a roar of laughter. 'He'll hear of it right enough! Perhaps he'll also attend your hanging.' De Wolfe was more interested in what Ranulf had said. 'Your cousins, eh? Are they both priests as well?' The other two were still struggling in the grip of the soldiers, and John saw in the dim light that one had a shaven tonsure. They were both big men and had an equally large vocabulary of foul language. At a sign from de Wolfe, Gabriel and Gwyn hauled the vicar of St Lawrence back on to his feet but kept a firm grip on his arms as he spluttered a reply to John's question. 'They are most certainly in lower orders of the Holy Church and like me claim benefit of clergy! We demand to be released at once; you have no jurisdiction over us.' Ranulf was a narrow-faced weasel of a fellow, full of bluster and self-righteousness. 'We are on consecrated ground here in Church property. You are trespassing!' It was the coroner's turn to laugh now. 'You bloody fool! Just accept that you've been caught! We'll gladly turn you over to the bishop. There are still enough proctors in the cathedral precinct to keep you locked up, even though you killed one of them!' At this, one of the cousins let out a howl. 'It wasn't me, it was Simon here...though he says the proctor fell down the stairs.' The other man struggled anew, this time trying to get at his relative. 'Shut up, you lying bastard! I wasn't even there. It was you that Ranulf sent to ransack the books!' A barrage of accusations and insults began between the three miscreants, until the men-at-arms cuffed them into grumbling silence. De Wolfe, frozen to his bones and out of patience with the squabbling clerics, told Gabriel to march the prisoners back to Rougement and put them in the cells. 'A night in that hellhole under the keep will cool their tempers!' he growled. 'Then in the morning the sheriff can negotiate with the bishop or the archdeacon about what happens to them. They won't be very happy with a bunch of renegade clerics who have murdered one of their proctors!' The next afternoon John called upon his friend John de Alençon to learn what the episcopal authorities had decided. As he had expected, the Church had closed ranks and refused to let the secular powers deal with the charges of murder and two assaults, as well as the theft of the Black Book and the illegal digging into a mound at Clyst St Mary. Over a cup of wine in the archdeacon's house, the wiry cleric told the coroner of that day's meeting between Bishop Henry Marshal and the sheriff, which he had attended. 'It was fortunate that His Grace was present in Exeter today, for much of the time he is away dealing with his various political interests,' said de Alençon with a touch of sarcasm. It was well known that the bishop was one of Prince John's supporters in his long-running campaign to unseat his brother Richard from the throne. Henry Marshal had come perilously near a charge of treason over the prince's abortive rebellion when the Lionheart was imprisoned in Germany. However, today's problem was untainted by politics, and the bishop had no hesitation in requiring the sheriff to hand over the three clerical culprits to his custody for trial by his consistory court, instead of the usual machinery of the criminal law. 'So they'll not hang, that's for sure,' said de Alençon. 'But our court will undoubtedly be hard on them, for the dead victim was one of our tonsured servants -- and, of course, they also assaulted a priest, your clerk Thomas. My poor nephew always seems to be in trouble of some sort!' 'He spends much of his time trying to make sense of that damned book that is partly at the root of this trouble,' observed de Wolfe. 'What happened to it, by the way?' 'It was found in Ranulf's house when it was searched early this morning,' replied the archdeacon. 'It proves that they were the ones who robbed little Thomas. The book is back in the archives, now locked away by Jordan le Brent, who seems frightened by it.' 'What will happen to it, I wonder?' 'Canon Jordan intends to dispatch it to Westminster as soon as possible. It seems the bishop has decided that Hubert Walter should see it first, as he spends more time there running the country than attending to the affairs of God in Canterbury.' Once again a sarcastic note entered de Alençon's voice. De Wolfe drank some more of the archdeacon's excellent wine before ruminating about the men he had arrested. 'It seems odd that an ordained priest and two in lesser holy orders should have embarked on a campaign of violence and robbery,' he observed. 'As its says in Paul's epistle to Timothy, "the love of money is the root of all evil" ', replied the archdeacon sadly. 'Our calling is no different from any other trade or profession, John. We have all types of men, some saintly, others pushed into the role because they were orphaned into the care of the Church as infants, rather than being called by God.' 'Have these men confessed their guilt?' asked the coroner. De Alençon shrugged. 'They could hardly deny being involved, being caught digging and with that Black Book in their possession. But they claim that the proctor accidentally fell down the stairs, though you say that his wound was a deliberate blow. They also protest that digging for treasure is no crime, as if they had found anything they would have declared it to the sheriff.' 'A likely story!' rasped de Wolfe. 'And what about robbing Thomas and assaulting the bailiff of Clyst St Mary?' 'They flatly deny being anywhere near that village, but I suspect that a few weeks in the dismal cells the proctors use will create such discord between them that one of them will start blaming the others.' 'And poor Thomas?' It was so often 'poor' Thomas, as the woebegone little clerk seemed to engender pity wherever he went. 'They say they only wanted to borrow the book and that as it was Church property they had every right to see it. Once again, they claim that Thomas tripped and fell, quite accidentally.' 'Too many folk become accident-prone when those three are around!!' grunted the coroner cynically. 'It's fortunate for them that they didn't contrive their accidents in Tavistock, for the abbot there has his own private gallows!' By the end of the week, Thomas de Peyne had had enough of the Black Book of Brân. Though restored to the library, it remained locked in one of the iron-banded boxes until such time as Jordan le Brent could arrange for it to be sent to London, so Thomas worked from the copy he had made. Poring over the text occupied all his free time, as he wrestled with the challenge of the obscure quatrains. His initial enthusiasm to decipher the verses had gradually changed into frustration, as no matter what new ideas he applied to the meanings, nothing remotely satisfactory emerged. With no idea of the timescale over which the prophecies ranged and no clue as to whether they were consecutive in relation to the passing of the years, he had nothing concrete to work with. His only conclusion, which was little more than an intuitive guess, was that the quatrain that contained the phrases 'three golden beasts' and 'bishop's rule' must surely refer to the present reign, but, even if true, which year was involved? In irritation, for anger was not an emotion that came easily to the mild-mannered clerk, he closed his copy of the book and banged his fist upon the cover. 'This is sheer nonsense!' he muttered to himself. 'I am wasting the precious time that the Almighty gave me to praise Him and study His works in fretting over the ravings of an ancient madman! I could write such verses myself that would contain as much or as little sense as these pointless babblings.' On an impulse he opened the book again to the last page and drew his pen and ink bottle towards him. After a moment's thought he dipped his quill into the little well and began writing in his impeccably regular script. Though portents dire do fill with dread And great significance implanted here, Take care to always use your head, Seek out the lie, for then your way is clear. When he had completed the last line, he laid down his pen and sat back, feeling slightly guilty but also elated that he had struck a small blow for common sense in warning off any future readers of this farrago of nonsense that presumed to anticipate the predestination that God had ordained for man. Three weeks later, after Canon Jordan had insisted that his copy be sent with the original to London, Thomas wished that he had not been so precipitate in interfering with the prognostications of that venerable Irish monk. Henry de Furnellis had been on his twice-yearly pilgrimage to Winchester, taking the county 'farm' to the Exchequer, the taxes that his agents had extracted from the reluctant inhabitants of Devonshire. This time, in addition to the thousands of silver pennies in panniers on the packhorses' backs, he had included the two valuable hoards unearthed in the recent wave of treasure-hunting around Exeter. However, it was not news about this that the sheriff brought back but of sensational tidings that had reached Winchester from its twin capital, London. On the day that he returned, Henry called his friends and officials together in the hall of Rougemont's keep. De Wolfe was there with his officer and clerk, together with Ralph the constable, several archdeacons, Rufus the chaplain, the two portreeves who headed the city council, a number of the more prominent burgesses and merchants and several of the sheriff's senior clerks. Though travel-weary after his days on the road, the old sheriff was still able to give them a dramatic account of what had been going on in London. The only way in which such news travelled across the country was by word of mouth like this, though sometimes it was conveyed by official heralds sent by the Curia Regis to inform the county sheriffs of important events. With his audience sitting at benches around the trestle tables or leaning against the walls, de Furnellis stood with folded arms and delivered himself of a speech, his bloodhound face more animated than usual. 'England -- or at least London and the surrounding counties -- has just narrowly escaped a massive revolt of the common people against authority. It seems that only drastic and determined action by Hubert Walter, the Justiciar, averted a blood-bath! However, he has not come out of this well, especially amongst the ecclesiastical community, for the memories of old King Henry and Becket are still lingering.' He stopped to gulp from the ale-pot in front of him, and there were some subdued murmurings of expectation from his listeners. 'To cut to the quick of it, the merchants and common people of London and nearby towns have been becoming more and more resentful of the increasing taxes imposed on them by the king and his council. They became even more hostile when a new tax, the taillage, was imposed -- because the amount each citizen was made to pay was decided by a jury. But it seems this jury was made up only of the richer folk, who conspired to virtually exempt themselves and lay most of the burden on the more lowly citizens!' There was a revival of the outraged murmuring in the hall, though some noticed that the two portreeves kept their mouths closed. Henry de Furnellis was now into his stride as a storyteller, though de Wolfe was not sure whether the sheriff, as the king's representative in the county, was more in sympathy with the oppressed Londoners than with his liege lord, King Richard. 'Well, a couple of months ago they found a champion, a strange fellow known as William Longbeard, though his real name was William Fitz-Osbert. He was a lawyer, but had followed the king to the Holy Land as a soldier. Anyway, this man, with a black beard down to his waist like some latter-day prophet, started rousing the rabble in London, holding meetings in the street and denouncing the authorities who were crushing the populace with their unfair taxes.' There was a growling amongst some of the audience in the hall, especially from the clerks and servants. 'Maybe we need a man with a long beard in Exeter!' called an unknown voice from the back. Undeterred, the sheriff carried on with his tale from the big city. 'It seems that William began organizing resistance on a large scale, forming groups of rebels and secretly smuggling in large quantities of arms from outside the city. There were alleged to be fifty thousand in his underground army, with district leaders and secret codewords. Longbeard even went across to Rouen to lay their grievances before the king, but it seems that Richard took no heed of his pleas.' 'What was the Justiciar doing all this time?' asked Ralph Morin, a staunch royalist. 'He was well aware of what was going on, for Hubert has spies everywhere. He began secretly drafting in large numbers of troops from outside London and drawing up plans to fight any insurrection. He let Fitz-Osbert go so far, then decided that he was becoming a real danger to law and order. Just before the revolt was due to flare up, he sent a party of men to arrest him, and in a fight in the street Fitz-Osbert fatally stabbed the leader of the guards. Then they ran and sought sanctuary in the church of St Mary le Bow. The Chief Justiciar sent a large force to capture him, but they barricaded themselves in the church.' The men in the hall were riveted by Henry's story; good drama was hard to come by in Devon, especially when true, like this one and from the new capital itself. 'Don't say that they broke sanctuary, as with Thomas à Becket!' shouted Brother Rufus, aghast at the thought that a repetition of the great scandal of the previous reign might be repeated. But the sheriff nodded gravely, as he continued. 'Even worse, he ordered that piles of straw be stacked around the church and set on fire! The rebels retreated to the tower, but eventually the smoke and flames drove them out, when they were attacked and Longbeard suffered a sword-thrust through the belly. Then Hubert Walter, who had taken up quarters in the Tower, ordered an immediate trial of the ringleaders and condemned them to be executed the very next day.' He swigged another mouthful of ale as the listeners waited in dead silence for the end of his tale. 'William Fitz-Osbert, wounded as he was, was stripped naked and tied to a horse's tail, then dragged from the Tower across the miles of cobbles and stony streets to Tyburn, a new execution site to the west of the city, where his mangled and dying body was trussed in chains and hanged from the branches of a great elm tree, along with all his accomplices in the failed revolt.' Thomas de Peyne, who had listened breathlessly to the sheriff's account, was suddenly assailed by a dreadful revelation. This was that quatrain come to fulfillment! It was the words 'the budding elm' that triggered his recognition, for it was April now, when the new shoots would be appearing on the trees. Now the words 'a bearded champion fought oppression's realm' made complete sense, as did the rest of the verse. He crossed himself repeatedly as he bitterly regretted adding his own foolish sneer to the copy of Brân's Black Book, rashly warning other readers not to believe everything they read. If the warning from centuries ago about Fitz-Osbert's actions and the further desecration of sanctuary -- by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself -- was true, what other terrible portents were forecast and would eventually come to pass? Shaking with remorse, he forced himself to listen to the end of Henry de Furnellis's account. 'Though the Justiciar had effectively destroyed the rebellion, he is being reviled in London by both common folk and churchmen alike for his high-handed actions, and there is talk that the king will be petitioned to have him removed from office.' He shook his grey head in despair. 'This was a bad time for England. The hatred of the population for harsh authority and the ruthlessness of the king's officer have weakened the bonds of loyalty to a king, who appears unconcerned with what happens this side of the Channel. The feelings of the men of London were shown by the way in which they acted at the execution site, this place Tyburn, which was used instead of Smithfield as the traditional place for the dispatch of traitors.' 'What d'you mean, sheriff, what actions of the populace?' asked de Wolfe. 'During the night, the bodies of Longbeard and his men were taken down by the saddened citizens, and the very chains in which they were hanged were broken up and distributed to the sympathizers as talismans of their respect. Not only that, but hundreds of common folk came to retrieve handfuls of earth from under the elm, below where the men had died. By next day there was a huge hole under where they had swung, such that Hubert Walter had to station troops to keep more folk away.' When the story was rounded off, with admonitions from the sheriff to watch for similar signs of unrest in Exeter, the coroner's trio went back to their chamber in the gatehouse and sombrely discussed the sheriff's news. Thomas decided to keep his revelations about the prophecy in Brân's Black Book to himself, mainly because of his regret at having rashly added such a dismissive verse. With both the original and the copy now gone to London -- and, who knows, perhaps onward to Rome - he felt it best to keep quiet about his stupid and immature action. 'Let other generations decide about the quatrains for themselves,' he muttered under his breath. 'Let God's will be done in His own time. We have no business in trying to anticipate what the Almighty has in store for us!' He went back to sorting out the archives, a chastened but wiser man. historical note The abortive revolt organized by William Fitz-Osbert was the first of a line of rebellions in England rousing the common man against oppressive authority -- later came John Ball, Wat Tyler and others. Much of the severe ill feeling against Archbishop Hubert Walter was not so much for his ruthless suppression of the revolt but for his breaking of sanctuary at St Mary le Bow, too reminiscent of the traumatic quarrel between Henry II and Thomas a Becket in 1170. Some accounts claim that Fitz-Osbert was hanged at the Smithfield elms, but it was on the Tyburn elm that he expired, probably the first of thousands to die there for almost six hundred years up to 1783. Copyright (c) 2008 by The Medieval Murderers Excerpted from The Lost Prophecies by Medieval Murderers Staff, Medieval Murderers All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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Publishers Weekly Review

In the Medieval Murderers' absorbing fourth serial historical (after 2007's House of Shadows), six British mystery authors-Bernard Knight, Ian Morson, Michael Jecks, Philip Gooden, Susanna Gregory, C.J. Sansom-chart the impact of the Black Book of Bren over the centuries. In 574, the infant Bren washes ashore in Ireland with the eponymous book of prophesies, leading local churchmen to believe him to be demonic. More than 600 years later, the sinister tome causes havoc in Exeter when coroner John de Wolfe and cleric Thomas de Peyne must cope with priests who have caught gold fever during a killing spree. Bren's manuscript makes an implausible side trip to snowy 1262 Russia, but it's soon back in England amid mayhem in Westminster Abbey. The prophetic book, which has "a habit of bringing out the worst in people," winds up in an appropriately apocalyptic future of polar ice melt, nuclear war, earthquakes and floods. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved