Authors: Richard Blake
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Thrillers, #Suspense
Also by Richard Blake
Conspiracies of Rome
The Terror of Constantinople
The Blood of Alexandria
The Sword of Damascus
The Ghosts of Athens
First published in Great Britain in 2012 Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © Richard Blake 2012
The right of Richard Blake to be identified as the Author
of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance
with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without
the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise
circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which
it is published and without a similar condition being
imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious
and any resemblance to real persons,
living or dead is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title
is available from the British Library
eBook ISBN 978 1 848 94704 7
Trade paperback ISBN 978 1 4447 0970 4
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
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I dedicate this book
to my wife Andrea
and to my daughter Philippa
The extract in Chapter 16 is from Gregory of Nyassa (d.
, Book IX, translated by Philip Schaff (1819–93).
The extract in Chapter 27 is from Plutarch (AD 46–120),
That It is Not Possible to Live Pleasurably According to the Doctrine of Epicurus
, translated by Richard Blake.
The arguments as to the Nature of Christ in Chapter 40 are adapted from the relevant articles in
The Catholic Encyclopaedia
, and from William Lane Craig,
Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics
, Crossway Books, Illinois, 1994.
The verses in Chapter 44 are from Homer,
, Book VIII, translated by George Chapman (1559–1634).
Canterbury, Friday, 3 April 688
The present chapter in my story begins five days ago. Oh, Jarrow to Canterbury is a three-hundred-mile journey, and you don’t cover much of that in five days. But I’m not starting with the day we set out from the monastery, with everyone waving us off and holding up his hands in prayer for our safety. Nor am I counting our interminable, though generally smooth, progress along the old military road, nor the changes of guard as we passed from one kingdom to another. I mention five days because it was then that I came, with young Brother Jeremy, to the silent ruins of what had, in the old days, been London, and prepared to step on to the bridge across the Thames.
‘Here, what do you think you’re doing?’ someone cried, popping out as if from nowhere. ‘I own this bridge, and I collect the tolls.’ He was one of those dirty, pot-bellied creatures you see lounging on street corners in any city where barbarians have planted themselves. Without experience of his kind, you might have dismissed him as a flabby loudmouth, sliding fast into the decline of life. But I had enough experience to know trouble when I saw it.
I forced a smile and sat upright in the handcart. ‘Greetings, my son,’ I quavered. ‘May God be with you on this glorious day. But this bridge is surely owned by His Majesty of Kent. And, as I am, you will have noticed, a monk of Holy Mother Church. I travel under King Swaefheard’s protection.’ I got a thoroughly nasty look for that. Ignoring Brother Jeremy, who’d let go of the handles, and who now stood looking down at the uneven stones of the road, the creature shambled over and stood between me and the risen sun. It was a nice day; correction, it had been a nice day.
‘Don’t you come the hoity-toity with me,’ he snarled. ‘I’ll have you know that His Majesty himself has given me the right to collect tolls. No one – not even a bag of bones like you – goes across for free.’ He stepped back and looked at the cart. An unpleasant grin now came over his face. What I’d thought at first was a sword tied to his waist turned out, on closer inspection, to be a wooden club. It made no difference to the trouble he represented. In the proper hands – especially against the unarmed – a club was as horrid as any sword.
‘I assess this cart at five silver pennies,’ he said with a faint sound of the official. ‘Payment before you go across.’
I raised my arms in supplication. ‘Five pennies, my son?’ I whined. ‘Five
pennies? Can there be so much money in the whole of England? Assuredly, we have none. Now, in the name of God, be merciful. I am an old man of ninety-seven. I am travelling to see the Lord High Bishop of Canterbury. Let us pass freely to the other side.’
That got me another of his unpleasant grins. He set off on a walk about the cart. He made a sudden feint at Jeremy, who shrank back in terror and nearly tripped over one of the stones. Before he could right himself, his hat came off, to show his pink scalp above the ginger tonsure. The man laughed at the slightly absurd sight, and went back to his general inspection. It was a nice cart. It had been fitted out in Jarrow with leather cushions and an awning to keep the rain and sun from spoiling my ride. By the time he got back to me, he barely needed to open his mouth.
‘If you can’t pay the toll, I’ll take the cart,’ he said.
As if had by surprise, I let out a flood of sobbing imprecation. I reminded him of my age, how far it still was to Canterbury, how I’d never walk a half-mile, let alone another seventy, without falling down dead. It was worth trying – and it did amuse him. He leaned into the cart and pressed his face close to mine. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ he sneered. ‘You give me the cart, your food, and whatever money you’ve got. You can then have a nice little stroll to Canterbury. There, can I be fairer than that?’
I tried another reference to my great age. It only ended his show of good humour. ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ he snarled, quoting an old Kentish ballad that brought back fond memories of my youth.
‘My heart, my heart!’ I suddenly cried, clutching at my chest. That got me another smile. ‘Oh my son,’ I cried again, ‘I have no money. But I do possess about me something else of great value. If you will but take that, leave the cart with me and the boy.’
‘Well, let’s be looking at it,’ he replied, leaning closer. I could smell his stomach-turning breath. I looked about – as if the escort I’d been promised that King sodding Swaefheard would provide might suddenly ride into sight. But no such luck. They hadn’t been there at the border to replace the men who had turned back. They’d not be here now. Put not your trust in princes, I thought grimly. It might have been the story of my life. I fixed another senile grin on my face and took a deep breath.
Dear me! Ninety-seven is ninety-seven – that much of what I’d told him was true – and I’ll not describe it as an easy, fluid motion. Still, I’ll swear he didn’t have time to wipe the expectant look off his face between the moment I slipped the fastening pin out of my cloak and the moment I rammed four of its six inches into the fucker’s left eye socket.
He let out the contents of both lungs in one scream as he staggered back, blood and the dark fluid of his ruined eye dribbling on to his scruffy beard. I gripped the side of the cart with my left hand and gave him the best shove I could manage with my walking stick. With another wail of horror – and oh, what a stroke of luck that was! – he was straight over the low wall of the bridge. Yes, lucky day, indeed! The first blow was an admirable thing for someone of my age. The second might have been envied by a man of any age. And it saved me the trouble of clambering out to do something inelegant and possibly ineffectual with my walking stick. Given more good luck, the tide might be in, and the river would carry him away.