that guilty woman of England rules over two such noble Kingdoms of Christendom
and is the cause of so much injury to the Catholic Faith, and the loss of so
many million souls, there is no doubt that whosoever sends her out of the world
with the pious intention of doing services, not only does not sin but gains
– Cardinal of Como, Secretary to Pope Gregory
HE HOPED IT had been a clean death. Hugh Hall placed his feet with exaggerated care on the mud-caked slope and gripped the shoulder of his young guide as he slid down the embankment.
The thought of dealing with blood or a wound made Hall’s stomach churn. He preferred his dead to be clean and laid out in the proper form, ready to pass on to their eternal rest with dignity and respect, not curled up in a twisted heap or blue and stiff with their limbs askew and eyes staring. Hall shivered in the damp spring air. Death before breakfast was tiresome.
“Where did you say Coburn passed?” Hall asked. The white-haired woodcutter’s death was no surprise. His hacking cough rasped off the garden croft’s walls each time he rolled his cart past the old stone building on his way to the manor.
“Not far now, Father.” Thomas Clopton tugged his woolen cap lower over greasy blond hair, inwardly cursing the slow pace of the priest.
A cock crowed, the sound raucous even at a distance. The pair passed the laneway that marked the edge of the manor. The estate spread much wider, encompassing fallow fields and woodland. The manor’s owner and Hall’s patron was one of the largest landholders in Warwickshire, holding claim over a significant part of the gentle rolling slopes of the Midlands, the farms, pastures and the broken patchwork forest that was once the primeval Forest of Arden. It was under his protection and influence Hall was able to maintain his secretive profession as a Catholic priest.
“Thomas, I thought Master Coburn’s place was east of the road? Are we astray?” Hall could see a thin trickle of smoke rising over the copse.
Thomas glanced back. “He isn’t at home, Father. Not far now, just ahead,” he said in an encouraging tone. The second son of one of the manor’s tenant farmers, he was a thin and reedy youth with a consumptive pallor and nervous hands. Even after two years of attending clandestine services at the manor, Thomas remained ill-at-ease speaking with the priest.
Hall carried a small leather bag containing the necessities of his profession. He avoided the traditional priest’s garb. To be found with Catholic vestments was tantamount to a death sentence.
Thomas led Hall down the rutted dirt road, deftly avoiding the soft glutinous mud patches that were all that remained of the previous day’s rain. The verge was covered with a scattering of thin grass stalks and sedge, mixed with flowering sorrel and stitchwort. The air smelled wet and cool and green in the morning, redolent with the early blooming plants. From the meadow a rabbit regarded the two passing men with wary eyes before resuming his breakfast of clover.
Thomas veered off the roadway onto a narrow sloping footpath that wound precipitously around the edge of a low hill, passing through a thick tangled hedgerow and into a straggling oak wood. The tumbled stone ruins of a small Benedictine monastery, abandoned for the last two hundred-odd years, stood hard on the forest edge. Only a handful of the larger stones remained marking the broken walls, the rest having been appropriated by locals for building materials and fireplaces. The priest was huffing by the time they reached the oaks and paused to catch his breath.
Hall straightened and silently cursed what was becoming an irritating cross-country odyssey. The next time, he vowed to himself, they can bring the body to the road, where the man can be shriven with some degree of decency and ease instead of having to slog through the spring mud. A late-hunting owl hooted in the distance, returning home from a long nocturnal stalk. The noise made him uneasy. Owls were notoriously bad luck, and although Hall despised the foolishness of the ignorant, he could not escape the slight shiver of foreboding the sound awoke in him.
Within a few minutes he could see through the thick trees to a grassy clearing within which a small fire was visible. Thomas shuffled through the slimy accrual of leaves littering the copse floor, moving towards the fire. Hall hesitated.
A man sat in front of the fire on a mossy fallen log, his back to them as they approached, tending the fire with a long branch. Thomas stepped closer and said something in a low voice. The man straightened, set the branch aside and stood, brushing his hands fastidiously on his thighs. Hall stopped, looking about in sudden suspicion. No wrapped body awaiting its final journey was in sight. His stomach tightened.
“Well?” Hall said. “You’ve dragged me from my bed on what is obviously a fool’s errand. What do you want?” he snapped, finding some momentary solace in his anger.
The man turned, smiling. One look at that gravestone smile was enough to silence Hall. The man was young, but tall and whip-lean, with dark hair and a short well-trimmed beard framing a cold mouth. A long rapier hung on his left-hip, topped by an elaborate, silvered decorative guard. One gloved hand rested easily on the hilt. The man wore a long traveler’s cloak over a dark and richly embroidered doublet.
“Father Hall.” The man gestured expansively. “How kind of you to join us on this most auspicious of morns.” His smile faded like a winter’s sun. “I can see we are going to be marvelous friends.”
“Marvelous friends call on me at the manor house. They don’t make me march all over God’s creation. Why did you have poor Thomas drag me out to meet you, and through a subterfuge no less?” Hall shot a glance at Thomas, who looked away. “Thomas, we shall be discussing this at length.”
“Come, Father, sit with me by the fire. Share our commons.” The fellow gestured at a small sausage-laden pan balanced on the edge of the fire.
Hall regarded him with a stiff expression. “I think that I had best be going.” He turned to follow the sodden path out of the clearing but stopped. Two men were leaning with casual insolence against the moss-encrusted oak beside the path. Both men held long wooden staves.
The man spoke without turning. “Best sit, Father, we have matters to discuss, not the least of which is your bloody Papist profession.” He pointed at the damp ground by the fire. “Sit.”
Hall looked at him for a long uncertain moment, and sat on the fallen log as far away as possible.
“I am a gardener, not a priest.”
“Truly?” asked the man sardonically, “and you tend your hedges with this?” He plucked the small leather bag from Hall’s belt. He drew out the small silver crucifix and rosary and gave them a cursory survey before tossing them to the ground with contempt. “We went some considerable trouble to get you here, so don’t treat me like a fool.”
He began to pace between Hall and the fire. “You know,” he said in a conversational tone, “they burned Protestants under that bitch Mary not twenty miles from here? Tossed them on the fire like so much kindling.” The man turned towards the priest. “You lack a good scorching, Father.” He spat the honorific like an insult. “Don’t try me or we’ll have you baking like a trussed roast.”
“In God’s name,” Hall asked, keeping tight control of his tone, “what do you want of me?”
“What does any man want of a priest? Knowledge.”
The priest’s face showed his confusion. “You wish instruction in the True Faith?”
The man burst into laughter. The comment drew grins from the man’s stave-wielding servants.
“By God, no one can claim you haven’t a wit about you. You may keep your tepid, arse-kissing faith for that Italian catamite you call the Pope. Instruction in your faith? No, I want something else.”
The man faced Hall. The priest’s tongue seemed to catch in his throat at the look on that razor face.
He leaned close to Hall, his breath sour and hot and intense. “I want your master. I want his correspondence. I want to know who he corresponds with, when they correspond, I want to know the content of his every letter, I want to know his codes, his couriers, I want to know every back-alley whore he’s covered in all England if necessary but most of all I want to know all his Catholic fellows, and you,” he paused for a moment and dropped his voice so low the priest had to strain to hear him, “are going to give it to me.”
For a moment Hall felt suspended, the heart fluttering in his chest his only sensation. He forced himself to look into the man’s level gaze. There was something deep and feral and unsettling in the man’s dark eyes: crow’s eyes, sharp, predatory and hungry. He shuddered.
“In the name of Christ, I will give you nothing. I know nothing!”
The man reached up with his right hand and closed it around the priest’s throat.
The iron hand tightened. Hall gagged. He pulled at the man’s wrist and fingers.
“I could give you that martyrdom you crave, Father. All I need do is close my fist.”
Tears formed in the corners of Hall’s eyes and his peripheral vision blurred into formless grey and red shadows. The lack of air was overwhelming, shattering, immersing. He could feel nothing but crushing pain in his throat and hear nothing but the frantic cacophony of his pulse. Hall tried to pray but found his panic rising. He felt slow and stupid, buried in a sluggish fog that seemed to reach for him with hungry malevolence.
An instant later he was kneeling on the damp ground, the tang of moss and woodsmoke in his nostrils, his body shuddering with each deep racking breath. The pounding in his chest and ears subsided. He lifted one muddied hand from the dirt and gently grasped his own throat. Still alive, praise God.
Two fine leather boots stood in front of Hall’s face. Hall looked up. Expressionless, the man looked down at him.
“No martyrdom, Father. Sorry. It would give me immense pleasure to send you footing it to the bowels of Hell, but not today.”
Thomas watched the events unfold with growing apprehension. He pushed his lank hair out of his eyes and glanced about, wiping his face with a nervous hand. This was more than he had reckoned with when he had agreed to bring the priest to the glen. He took a wary step backwards only to find himself shoved hard back to his position by the stave-wielding servant who now stood behind him. Thomas shivered and by reflex crossed himself.
Hall massaged his throat, mumbling a prayer. He knew he was down among the fallen. He glanced up. He was afraid. Hall tried to remind himself that what Christ endured on the cross was far beyond his own suffering.
But he was afraid. Deeply afraid. He felt it like a chill ember embedded in his chest.
Hall was no martyr. Living in a comfortable lodging, with food, wine, clothes and the protection of patronage, he felt ill-equipped to endure the rigors of any martyrdom. Comfortably ensconced in the heart of the Catholic supporters of Warwickshire for years and grown comfortable in his hidden practice, the priest had little to fear of pursuivants. The worst fate he would face, he had thought, would be an exile to France, where he would join the growing community of exiled Englishmen in Rheims and live out his remaining years teaching a new generation of exiled priests.
But not death. Not martyrdom. Not like this. To die for Christ should be easy for a man of faith. But Hall did not wish to die.
The man smiled down at him. “Now that we know where we stand, let’s have breakfast.” He gestured at the log and the small tin plate of links hissing in grease by the fire’s edge. Hall levered himself up and sat on the mossy log, massaging his battered throat, a cold, sick feeling growing within in him.
“May I have the kindness of borrowing your knife?”
Startled by the polite request, the priest glanced up in surprise. The man held out his hand. Without thinking Hall handed over the short blade he carried on his belt. The man smiled his thanks and proceeded to spear a sausage.
“Father,” the man said around a mouthful, “I am concerned that you not be too angry with poor Thomas here.” He gestured at the boy who stood rooted like a tree beside one of the grinning stave-wielders. Thomas edged forward, a wary look on his long face. He licked his lips.
“I know the boy tricked you into coming to our little breakfast but he did so under the best intentions–mine.” The man laughed. “He’s a good lad, honest and attentive. He earned his money bringing you here.” The man stood and placed one arm around Thomas’s shoulders, then handed Thomas two small coins with his free hand. Thomas stared at the silver in his palm and grinned, relieved and pleased. “So Father, I want you to forgive this poor boy his trespasses.”
Hall stared forward with a stoic expression. He was not a man inclined to forgive at the best of times, and the pain and fear of the last hour was fresh in his mind. “Thomas,” he said flatly, “is a betrayer and a liar. I am not inclined to forgive that on the word of the man that paid him his thirty silver coins.”
“It was only tuppence, no’ thirty.” Thomas interrupted with a sullen tone.
The man looked down at the seated priest, a curious expression on his face. “No forgiveness in your soul?” he mocked. “I know you think the boy lied to get you here but he was quite truthful.”
Hall looked up, puzzled. The man smiled and with no change in his expression, thrust the short knife hard into Thomas’s throat.
For a second, Hall didn’t believe his eyes. Thomas gagged, both hands clutching at the small hilt. The blade was rammed up deep under his chin. Thomas staggered, grabbing at the hilt with frantic hands. He pulled the blade out. Red blood pulsed and sheeted down the front of his smock and he stared in horror at his bloodied hands. He dropped the dripping blade in the dirt, turned and took several faltering steps towards the path from the glen, as if the vain and fleeting thought of returning home was running through his mind. One of the stave-men stepped forward and gave Thomas a gentle push back in the direction of the fire. At the pressure, Thomas spun, sliding down to one knee. His eyes, wide and astonished, gazed imploringly at Hall. One eye rolled slowly back, trembling. Hall sat unmoving on the log, frozen in shock and horror. With both hands Thomas grasped at his torn throat. Choking on blood, he slumped into the mud in a forlorn pile. One leg twitched spasmodically, as if still trying to run.
The priest could hear Thomas’s wet, laboured breathing gradually slow and mute into silence. The stillness seemed to echo in his ears. The morning breeze died down; even the birds seemed to fall quiet. Hall turned and vomited the acid contents of his empty belly onto the damp ground. His stomach twisted. Death before breakfast.
“Didn’t I tell you he spoke the truth?” The man’s voice was soft and reasonable. He picked up the blade from the blood-spattered grass. “Best give him his rites, Father, for what it’s worth.”
Hall looked up at the man as though seeing him for the first time. The man sat, casually flicked the blood from Hall’s knife and leaned over to spear another sausage.
Hall shivered and looked away, but all he could see was those bleak, chill crow’s eyes, harrowing into his own.
“And now, Father, I want you to tell me everything you know about your master, Edward Arden. Everything.”