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  • Sam Quentin

History Can Kill


How Handed Down begins...


Declining Majesty

1216. The Wash, Eastern England.

King John’s caravan stretched over a quarter of mile. The troops, carts and wagons were on a boggy path trudging into a strong wind. Heavy rain blurred the vision of hundreds of men. The King, was absent. Gone to Bedmundesham for a cure to his fevered sickness. Some men noted that it gave him a less trying route around the flat salt marshes of The Wash to Swineshead. For the main caravan, there was only hard going on treacherous tidal causeways.

Flashes of lightning were close. Claps of thunder spooked the horses and darkened an already inky mood among the retinue. Their loyalty to a king known as Mollegladium, or Softsword, seemed ill-advised now the rebellious barons had invited the French King to sit on England’s throne.

John’s defeats, military, political and religious, assailed their minds as the heavy carts and wagons of the royal caravan clanked slowly along a causeway on the barren East Anglian coast.

At the front Elfric, the Abbott of Sleaford, guided them. He led the way with a white painted cross held high so all could see his direction. Elfric was old, but not yet elderly. The hair and beard stuck down on his skull by the rain had occasional touches of dark hair among the grey. The skin on his face was weathered by years in the sun, working next to the serfs on the monastery’s farms. Elfric was physically worn down by his years of devotion to the Lord, but his faith sustained him.

Sir Peter De Stell commanded the King's troop and was responsible for escorting the baggage caravan to safety. He was a tall powerful man. Underneath his robes he wore chainmail and had weapons at hand. In easier times he might have been less worried about attacks, but England was a country at war.

Sir Peter's harbinger had recruited Elfric as a guide across the dangerous acres of The Wash. It was a place where pathways turned to quicksand in a single step. All travellers of means had someone to see them to safety.

De Stell had the easy arrogance of nobility. He had seen what he expected to see when the guide arrived, an old man who knew his place. A monk who knew that refusing to guide the King, or even a noble, would have made him liable to punishment at the hands of his betters.

Sir Peter felt his horse start to slow. Its hooves made a deeper sucking noise every time it lifted them. “Priest. Are you certain of our path?”

“Your Lordship’s concern is natural, but we who know these paths rely on the knowledge for our lives. We will have hours to spare in our passage.”

He smiled at the King’s man as the mud gripped his feet. De Stell rode part of the way back along the caravan, assuaged but still disquieted.

The caravan crawled forward for a few more minutes. Elfric’s pace was in keeping with that of a royal train. He didn’t hurry them along. He had known he had them from the moment they had stepped onto the causeway. The sea would make every step treacherous within a few moments.

The first signs of fast-rising seawater began to make themselves clear. His own bare feet became nearly impossible to lift away from the ground. The breathing of the horses became heavier with the effort of raising their hooves. The sucking of the sodden, quickening sand was louder at every step. The heavy carts were the first to slow. He heard the whips of those driving the horses crack heavier, as sandy mud gripped the wheels of the King’s baggage train.

At the same moment the drivers realised they were becoming stuck, Sir Peter saw a thin smear of water cover the sandy earth of the causeway. The largest of the carts was that which carried the King’s tent. It was at the front of the retinue. Directly behind it was a cart that looked different to the others. Where most had slatted sides and open tops with a canvas to cover them, the second cart had solid wooden sides and a thick oak roof. It was the first cart to stop, it was the heaviest. The extra guards at its side could do nothing as the driver whipped his horses hard to get it moving again. It did not move. In moments none of the carts did.

The shouts of the drivers and the pathetic braying of the frightened horses made a rising chorus of anger and panic. The caravan was in the middle of The Wash, two miles from the safety of Sutton Bridge.

Sir Peter struggled towards the front of the train. Elfric heard him coming and knew the moment had arrived. He thought of the King’s schism with the Pope that had seen all of England excommunicated for six years. No weddings, no baptisms, the dead buried in unconsecrated ground, and no tithes for the Lord. John had made England godless. Elfric was at peace as De Stell’s horse reared in front of him.

Incredulity shot through the noble’s voice, “Are you incapable, priest, or have you betrayed your King?”

Elfric raised his white staff high as he met the nobleman’s eyes evenly. “The King blasphemed against The Lord when he broke with the Holy Roman Church. He has humbled God in England, and God is vengeful. “

The blow from De Stell’s sword was swift and precise. Elfric’s head came clean off. The lips were still moving and the eyes blinking as it rolled on the wet sand. The body remained standing for a moment longer than De Stell expected. Superstitious fear sent a shiver across his shoulders and down his back. As the corpse collapsed into the rising water the noble knew he would be haunted by Elfric

He shook himself free of the moment and began shouting orders. The King’s men tried to salvage what they could from the chaos of the drowning royal train. Carts were already up to their axles in the quicksand. The sound of splintering wood as wheels broke mixed in among the shouts and screams. The water on top of the sand went over the top of the wheels. Once it had turned the tide had rushed across them in moments.

De Stell saw one of the King's Chamber servants, a young boy, struggle to hang onto the side of a cart and lift a foot. As he strained, a horse from a nearby cart reared and knocked him down into the now deep water. The lad did not resurface.

De Stell directed his men to head to the drier land at Sutton Bridge. He looked to where the King's treasury wagon was disappearing. With its enormous weight it was sinking into the sand faster than most of the other carts.

*

Despite the squally rain and wind, Elfric’s staff had been visible for some distance. On a small island among the now flooded salt marshes, hidden by a copse of wych elm and alder trees, an apprentice monk saw the abbot raise his white cross. As it fell, Bartholomew prayed for his master.

He was in a dry hollow, close to a heavy branched tree. Stretched across his oak board, the vellum map he worked at was dry, despite the rain. His master had insisted he dig out the hollow, and line it with grass. Elfric’s forethought was being rewarded now. The comfort meant Bartholomew could sit for a long time and keep the carefully placed nicks on top of the map lined up with the few landmarks of the Wash.

He kept to the strict instruction he had been given. The markers on the upper edge of the map had been made by his master over long months. They had already known the the most perilous route on the estuary. Secretly marking and measuring it had been arduous.

Each step his master had taken today from the last landmark had been measured by keeping tally on a stick. On the thick surface of the vellum map, Bartholomew scraped a few words of latin and a mark with his quill for where Elfric had fallen. He thought back to Elfric’s instructions and made another notation in Latin on lists near the bottom of the map.

He worked back along the King’s caravan and looked for the heaviest wagon. The one with the solid oak sides and roof that Elfric had described. It was easy to spot. Totally different to all the other wagons in the caravan. He saw it just as its vast weight dipped it wildly on one side. The apprentice saw the waggoner thrown from his place at its front but did not have time to pray for him.

He bent to his work, checked the tally for how many paces back from Elfric the wagon was and made the second special mark for its position. Bartholomew thought of all the time he and Elfric had spent laying a snare for the King. The abbot had been called on countless times to lead royalty and nobility safely across The Wash. Disguised as the mapping of a safe path, Elfric had been readying a trap for a King who thought of Eastern England as a safe haven. The abbot had determined to prove England was safe for none but the faithful.

The apprentice watched the caravan’s disastrous end unfold. Even at a distance, he could hear the fearful panic and see men fighting to stay alive as they were sucked into the softening quicksand of The Wash. He gave no room to the doubts scratching at the edge of his faith. He bent to his work.

Just as he had predicted, Elfric had been martyred. Their months of measuring and mapping meant the death would not be in vain. Elfric’s body would be recovered and venerated. Perhaps, as Elfric had hoped, his bones might be taken to Rome for blessing by the Holy Father. The treasure the monks would raise from the sands would help with that. As the only one in Elfric’s confidence it would be Bartholomew’s task to persuade them.

The apprentice saw the survivors head away from him. He prayed as the hours passed and the waters of The Wash ebbed. He felt safe, his tiny spit of raised land would look like little more than a drowned tree. As the landscape of the marshes emerged from under the water he thanked the Lord. He had put himself in God’s hands and survived. He took flight.

Bartholomew ran along the paths that led to the sandy northern edge of The Wash. In his hands was the final act of the man he had been tied to since he was four years old. He wanted nothing more than to carry out Elfric’s words to the letter.

*

The scene at the raised land of Sutton Bridge was reminiscent of a battlefield after the fighting. Exhausted and injured men lay all around, shocked to silence or moaning with pain. At the edge of the group, now fewer than a hundred strong, a horse with a broken leg left its misery behind with a wheezing rasp from its freshly cut throat.

Sir Peter De Stell felt distant to it all as he looked across the vast, drying marshes of The Wash. There was not one single signifier of where the caravan had been taken down. No spar from a broken wagon, not even a body or loosened piece of clothing. Anything left on the surface had been dragged away by the tide.

The knight was assailed by fear. This was his fault. He had held responsibility for the King’s Royal Treasury. Now it was lost underneath the wind-whipped and chilly sands. The crown jewels, artefacts and relics, and most of all the three hundred thousand gold and silver pieces that would fund John's continuing war with the northern lords were all missing. Even the shard of the true cross they had prayed at each day was gone.

The loss of horses and men would not touch the King, but the loss of his treasury and the relics would go very hard for Sir Peter De Stell. He paid little heed to his own fortune, now lost. It had been in one of the smaller strongboxes in the Treasury. He was a condemned man.

De Stell could see his end coming. The long road around The Wash led to Sutton Bridge and he could see the King's party approaching. There were shouts and men charged ahead as they realised something was wrong. De Stell looked to the men who had survived. He could see none from his own lands. There would be no loyalty to him among the survivors. He thought of taking flight but found that a hand from a man-at-arms he had never trusted had found its way onto the halter of his horse.

That morning he had been in one of the most exalted positions any soldier could have. As the first of the King's guard came to the scene he knew he would lose more than just his position.

De Stell dismounted and went to the edge of the group. He was near the horse that had been freed of its pain, and the blood that had flowed from it. He looked back over the empty unmarked sands of The Wash, then he knelt and began to pray. He hoped the Lord would find a place for him, then he thought of Elfric and knew there was little hope of salvation.

He ground his hands together, apparently at prayer but it was fear and desperation crowding his mind. He heard the carriage carrying the King arrive. The shouts and noise that surrounded it meant it could be nothing else. He did not turn

The man-at-arms who had held De Stell's horse approached the King’s carriage as it arrived. He knelt in front of one of the courtiers. The two men spoke then the courtier went to the small window at the rear of the King's carriage.

A pale hand appeared: the courtier kissed it, and then spoke to the King for a few moments. A small pathetic cry was heard as the King received the news that his fortune was lost. The courtier waited, listened, nodded and then summoned the man-at-arms who had held De Stell’s horse from flight.

Without pause the man-at-arms strode from the courtier's side. De Stell heard him coming but did not turn towards him or move hardly at all. He simply lifted his head from prayer and took in a last view of the wide, treacherous landscape that had condemned him. The man-at-arms' sword swung in a huge arc but missed its mark. Where he had aimed to cut clean through De Stell’s neck his sword bit through the middle of his ear. The blade made it halfway through De Stell’s skull. The man-at-arms had to twist the sword to release it, as he did the top half of De Stell’s head cracked and the sword sliced it free. It landed on a downward slope and skittered downwards. Its bloody bowl slid into the marsh. De Stell’s body jerked in spasm, sending blood and brains backwards onto the man-at-arms' boots. Then Sir Peter's body collapsed forward. An encouraging boot sent it after the top of its head into the Wash.

The King came in and out of his fever. His sickness was worsened by the news, but even in his illness, and at his lowest point he found a way to become the engine of his own defeat.

The courtier was called over, and after a moment said something that was quieted by a high pitched objection from within the King’s carriage. The courtier called the King's guard to him.

The survivors of the baggage train began to be unsettled. They were right to be as the guards turned from the resigned-looking courtier and sprinted towards them hacking and slashing as they went. The murderous, bloody whirl continued until the disaster at the Wash had no survivors, not even the loyal man who had executed De Stell.

The courtier had briefly tried to counsel the King that killing the survivors would be a mistake but the King's foul temper had flared enough that he had given the order.

The King’s carriage moved off but some of the royal party waited at Sutton Bridge for the tide to flood in and out again. When the vast, anonymous flat sands of The Wash were revealed by the outgoing tide, no markers or wreckage gave away the royal train's location. In his dying fever even the King realised he had ordered the deaths of the men best placed to locate it.

*

The apprentice monk’s headlong charge from The Wash was rushed and panicked. His soaked and heavy robes slowed him but he could not contemplate detection. He reached the edge of the open fenland and stopped dead, unsure if he had heard something. Someone. He had been about to go towards the abbey. It was barely visible in the distance. Even running, it would take him some time to make the security of its walls.

Bartholomew heard a noise behind him and froze. Panic squeezed the air from his lungs. Every breath was shallower than the last. His mind was blank with fear. In his hand, there was all the evidence anyone could need of treason against the King. No one would care that they had acted in the interests of the only authority higher than the King. He would die a long painful death, as would every monk at the Abbey, despite their ignorance.

Through the driving rain, he could just make out the white walls of the abbey. It was too distant to see if any of his religious brothers were outside. He knew it was too distant for them to help him if they were.

He could hear the sound of advancing feet behind him and ran. He held the leather pouch with the maps and calculations close to his chest. He held it so close that the first arrow went through his back, out of his chest and made a bloody hole in the pouch.

Bartholomew stumbled but moved forward. A few moments later, a second arrow bit the top of his left leg and he was pulled sharply to earth. He clutched the leather pouch of documents to his chest. The physical pain was strangely acceptable. The mental agony of defeat was far worse. The torture of failing to bring Elfric’s plans to fruition seared his soul. It was that as much as the blood in his throat that choked him.

He could not shift from where he had fallen, despite the muddy slap of approaching footsteps. He recognised the man who stepped into his vision. He was instantly certain that even if his wounds didn’t kill him, he would shortly be dead. His hopes ended and weariness took him.

The man bent over and pulled the leather satchel from Bartholomew’s hands and off the end of the arrow in his chest. He looked inside. Without looking away from its contents, he put his toe against the point of the arrow sticking out of Bartholomew’s ribs. He slowly moved it around. Bartholomew tried to scream but hadn’t the breath. His face screwing up and reddening with agony was the only visible sign of his pain.

The man sheltered the contents of the satchel with his body as he studied them. He spoke to Bartholomew without bothering to look at him.“You’re going to die, Bartholomew. You have failed your master, but worse, you have let down your family. Our father would be most disappointed were he still alive.”

Bartholomew Chard looked up at his brother, William, who spoke without emotion.“I’ll make you a bargain. If you spend a few of your last moments helping me understand what you have written, I’ll ensure a quick death and a burial in consecrated ground. If you do not help me, I’ll ensure you live long enough to suffer a thousand agonies and then toss your body in a butcher’s pit.”

Bartholomew’s faith sustained him long enough to speak. “You are an illiterate peasant William. You will die that way.”

William kicked the arrow in his brother’s chest. Then watched as he took a full ten minutes to die.


Chapter 1

A chauffeur opened the door of the limousine and a slender elderly man stepped out. The frail old man paused, steadied himself, then walked across the footpath of the Bayswater Road that runs along the northern edge of London’s Hyde Park. He made his way up the front steps of a grand, six-floored terraced house. The beautiful old building had a brightly painted relief above the door. It was a coat of arms with a bright yellow duck in the top corner of a green shield with a red stripe.

The old man glanced at it and grimaced slightly as he entered the impressive house that had long since been turned into offices. He proceeded at a stately pace that fitted a man of his years, but despite that age, he was fit. There was no excess flesh around a wolfish face.

Inside, the lift took him to the top floor. His diary secretary and his personal secretary stood up from their desks on either side of the sumptuous reception room. He gave them the thinnest of smiles and went into his office.

It was well done in the old-fashioned style. Dark wood panelling covered the walls. A broad antique desk took up most of the window side of the large room. He had not spent much time there recently but, over the years, he had drawn satisfaction from the place. It had a sense of solidity and permanence he liked. He would not be coming here much longer. His interest in the business was winding down. His sons were not interested in taking it over, so he was in the process of selling it. Thoughts of his two sons angered him. He had done as his father had bid, but his own sons had not seen fit to do what he asked of them.

He sat down at his desk and cast an eye over the correspondence spread across it. The letters were laid out, as he preferred, by apparent importance. He had taught his secretaries that quality of stationery was as good a mark of importance as anything printed on an envelope. It did not always hold true. His eye was immediately drawn to the cheap brown envelope furthest from him on the vast desk. His name and address were handwritten. He knew where, and who, it was from. It was the first contact in years. Blurred memories sprang back to life in technicolour vividness. He opened the envelope and read the short covering note. Then he took in the contents.

He lifted the phone and waited a moment.

“Yes, sir?” said his secretary.

“Call for my car. I am going away for a few days.”


Chapter 2

Lannerton was a village of twenty or so houses set among the rolling fields of a quiet Dorset valley which led down to a small seaside town. It was close enough to smell the sea, but not quite close enough to hear waves on the shore.

The midnight darkness did not slow the five lean-looking men who walked along a narrow, unpaved street. There were small terraced cottages on one side and a bramble-covered wall on the other. The men were not walking in the warm camaraderie of a group returning from the pub. They were spread across the broken, unlit street as though they were expecting to be challenged. They were in formation. Menace and malevolence surrounded them as they moved forward.

They were dressed to fit in, but didn’t. They wore various combinations of sweatshirts, jeans and Caterpillar boots or Timberlands; the kind of clothes that always look best when they’re a little worn in. Their clothes were stiffly new. The group stuck out but despite that, the late hour and the mid-September chill, they went unnoticed. The cottages they walked past were dark.

Their leader, Eduardo Parrers, was Brazilian. He did not care for the English. He wanted to get the job done, then return somewhere warmer in climate and spirit.

The road ended in a wide wooden farm gate. Two hundred yards beyond the gate, at the end of long drive, was a large stone cottage. It might once have been the farmhouse for a lot of the local land. It had age on its thick walls and grey tiled roof.

Parrers was unmoved by the English idyll the house summed up. He saw a light on in what he knew from his briefing documents was a downstairs study. He also saw movement in an upstairs bedroom. That probably meant the old man’s younger girlfriend was staying. That was fine. It might help them do the job quietly. Threats could be unspoken, logic his biggest weapon.

The five men approached the house quietly. They stopped twenty yards away and Parrers pointed one of them towards a large bush. They had been through the routine before they got there. This man was to wait here in the unlikely event that someone ran and got this far. The other man on Parrers’ left stayed with him, while the two to his right were waved to the side of the house. They quietly vaulted a gate and went to cover the rear.

Parrers and his companion stepped out onto the loose surface of the driveway. The crunching of the gravel gave them away, but that was fine. His men were in place. Eduardo wasn’t trying to sneak around.

He knocked quietly on the front door, making sure he and his colleague could not be seen through the window of the study, or the glass of the door itself. He slipped his silenced pistol from inside his jacket.

A solid-looking man of about sixty opened the door. He was a shade under six feet tall and had a full grey beard. It made him look like a retired Navy man. Eduardo knew he’d been Army, not Navy. He also knew it was a long time ago.

The man focused hard blue eyes onto Eduardo’s face over the top of half-lens reading glasses. The glasses were resting on a nose that had been broken more than once. He took in Eduardo’s gun.

“You, I have to take alive, George,” Eduardo stated, in accented but perfectly clear English. Then he indicated the bedroom above. “If you want her to live, get dressed and walk quietly away with me. Best to hope she does not look out of the window.” The mercenary pointed to a mobile phone on a shelf near the door. “And bring that.”

Putting one hand up, George Thorn spoke quietly. “My gun is in my other hand behind the door. I’m going to hand it to you.” Eduardo shifted, but the old man simply gave him the small automatic pistol he had been holding. George slipped his broad shoulders into a well-worn Barbour jacket. He then he put on his green Wellington boots and walked out of his house.

Eduardo indicated he should walk up the driveway ahead of him and fell in closely behind him. “Not a word, not a question, nothing. Do as you’re instructed. You have to live. You don’t have to be unharmed.”


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