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Chapter 5 - The Bishop of the Northern Marches by A.J. Hall

Hugh looked up as the door bell pealed. The apprentice would get it – no, the apprentice was still at the tannery, arguing about the quality of that last batch of neats’ hides. And the girl had set out for the market half a turn of the glass ago, and the round of haggling, gossip and flirtation would occupy her until at least the noon bell.

He laid aside his awl, divested himself of his leather apron, and went to the door.

One glance at the stranger’s well-cut, sober clothing impelled Hugh to usher him into the small parlour reserved for customers of quality. A well-off merchant or minor country squire, no doubt. Not young; his dark hair was liberally sprinkled with grey and the way he held himself suggested his slender body had lost the suppleness of youth.

“Some refreshment, sir? How can I assist you?”

“A cup of wine would be most welcome. Thank you. I leave Brendelhame for the capital this evening and will be away five days. If I order boots now, will they be ready on my return?”

“Assuredly.” It would be tight work; he’d got behind on fulfilling orders, as days had dragged into weeks without news, and he’d lacked the spirit to attend to his workshop. But, come what may, one had to eat and to provide for one’s household. However tempting the alternative, one could not leave one’s only sister destitute and dowerless.

He poured the wine and settled the customer in the tall wing-chair with the footstool.

“Left boot first,” the stranger said pleasantly. “That foot’s a trifle wider than the other.”

The removal of boot and sock revealed an ugly scar marring the shin; healed but recent, a puckered mess amid angry red discolouration.

“That must have been painful, sir,” Hugh observed, wielding his callipers to judge calf and ankle and jabbing with his stylus at his tablet.

“A humble boot-scraper, if you’ll believe it. But it became infected and I delayed seeking treatment and –” He shrugged. “By the way, would you know where I might find the friends of a man named Cecil, a scrivener? He had a stall by the West Door of the church of St James the Less, off Mitregate.”

Time stopped in the close parlour. The breath choked in Hugh’s lungs. Had Cecil told, despite their mutual oaths and fervent promises –?

An oath’s not worth a breath, when a skilled man wields the pilliwinks.

How long since he’d heard a drunk bravo make that boast in a tavern, and gone home to cower beneath the sheets, his rosary in his hand, praying over and over that this cup might pass from him?

“I’m sorry,” Hugh said, surprised at how even his voice sounded. “You must mistake me. I know of no such man. The other boot, sir?”

The stranger swung his right leg onto the footstool. “I’ll have to pursue my enquiries elsewhere, then. A pity. I hate to think of a good man’s grave lying untended, for want of a word to his friends.”

Hugh gulped. The stranger’s right ankle bore a complete circle of abrasions, fading but unmistakeable. The marks of an iron shackle. He looked up into a pair of unwavering grey eyes.

“Yes,” the stranger said, though Hugh had asked no question. “That wasn’t caused by a boot-scraper. Might it change your answer?”

It could still be a trap, but yes – he had to know and damn the risk.

“You mentioned a grave, sir. But I had understood that when – when prisoners died in the Bishop’s cells –”

He could not go on. The stranger’s voice was cool, uninflected.

“You understood that the lowest and vilest of the turnkeys were tasked with removing the corpses privily, by night. You understood that they carried them to a certain secret spot – unconsecrated land, outside the city limits. You understood the corpses were tumbled into a common pit, slaked down with quicklime to speed their disintegration, and there left, until the next time the pit needed opening.”

Hugh couldn’t help it. Sobs – great, racking, unmanly sobs – tore through him. He buried his head in his hands. Words tore unbidden from his throat. “And the Bishop still sits at table in his palace, and none can touch him for it.”

He felt the light brush of the stranger’s hand on his shoulder; the stranger’s own cup being held to his lips.

“Even a Bishop has to answer to a higher power.”

Hugh didn’t look up; his voice was dull with pain. “The mills of God grind exceedingly slow.”

“It wasn’t God I had in mind. As we speak, there are men exhuming those bodies, seeing what can be done to find their names. Someone who’s learned the language can read a body like a book, even after quicklime. But Cecil was never there. He left the gaol alive.”

Hugh looked up. “You know that?”

“I’ve spoken with the physician who tended him in his last hour. He could not have had better care had he been of Royal blood.”

“Thank God. Thank God. But then where –?”

“There’s a hamlet four miles north-west of here, on the road to the border. It used to be a royal hunting demesne, but fashions changed and the game declined, so now it’s mostly apple orchards and a cider press. But the chapel there remains a sovereign peculiar; answerable to the King’s chaplain and not the diocese. The river laps the churchyard on the southern side. There’s a walnut tree on the bank. The grave’s beneath its shade.”

“We used to fish for trout in that river –”

“So Cecil said, in the gaol. He dreamt himself back there, as the fever mounted. Got all the measurements you need? Good. Let’s see your leathers, then. The boots must fit like softest kid, but withstand the hardest winter wear. I ride to war.”