Historia is delighted to publish an exclusive extract from By the Sword, the new HWA collection of short stories set in the medieval period. This is part one of Michael Jecks’s story, A Plague on your Business. Part two follows in a few days.
The body was wrapped at last. He had carefully washed her, combing her hair and covering it with a clean linen coif, gently setting her arms at her sides, wiping away his own tears as he worked.
Berenger Fripper had not laid out a body in an age. This was work for women – but in this time of pestilence, all stayed away from corpses. Those who had been touched by the evil buboes must die alone and unshriven. No one wanted to go near in case they might also find themselves afflicted.
Some said it was a sign of God’s disgust. Berenger knew that was wrong. God could not have wanted to punish his Marguerite. He deserved His justice more. Perhaps this was a punishment for his wrongs?
He picked up the little bundle and placed it carefully on her breast, crossing her arms about it, pressing it tight against her breast. “There, my love, there. You protect him when you face God together. Keep him with you and… and…”
He could manage no more. Breaking down, he knelt at the side of the table, his brow resting on his dead wife’s flank, his hand still on his son’s tiny figure, as the hot, angry tears flowed and the sobs threatened to choke him.
He was alone again. Never before had he felt such desperate solitude. As a professional soldier, he had enjoyed the comfort and companionship of other men about him, laughing and joking through the good times and the ill but now, since he had taken the offer of a house here in Calais after Edward III had won the city, he was without friends. Old Jacob had died earlier in the week, and his neighbour Fletcher was even now in the last stages of his disease. All those whom he had called friends, he had waved off as they sailed homewards, their purses filled with French gold. Sir John de Sully, Grandarse and his archers, all gone.
Not that they would be any safer in England from this disease. Nowhere was safe. God had deserted His people. God was destroying all.
There was a knock and a muffled shout. Berenger wiped his eyes and snorted hard to clear his nose, then made his way out through the little shop to the front door. He opened it to be confronted by a man who stood a wary pace or two away.
“Where?” the man asked. He had a cloth tied about his nose and mouth. It did not prevent the reek of strong wine reaching Berenger’s nose. He didn’t grudge the man a drink. His was not a job many would wish to take.
Berenger led the way to the parlour where the two lay on his table. He felt another sob from deep in his belly rise up as though to throttle him. It lodged in his throat like a rock, and he could not speak.
The man entered and gazed down at the bodies. “Your child as well?” Berenger nodded. “Godspeed them both, friend,” the collector said and crossed himself.
Berenger busied himself covering her face, once so beautiful, now so empty of feeling and emotion. With the thick needle and waxed twine, he stitched from her feet in great loops that caught the shroud and bunched it up like badly knitted scars. He had to take more twine when he reached her breast, clumsily trying to thread the needle with hands that shook.
“Here, let me,” the carter said, but Berenger snatched his hands away before the man could grab them.
This was his wife, and he would see to her remains as best he could. He didn’t need another man’s help, another man’s hands pawing at her.
“Hurry up, eh?” the man said gruffly. He pulled the cloth aside and scratched at his chin before pulling the mask back.
Berenger clenched his jaw, and the thread slipped through the eye. He took up a handful of the shroud and began to stitch. He wouldn’t have a stranger getting so close to his Marguerite’s breast. It was hateful that the man could see her like this without setting his hands near her. He paused as the needle reached her chin. While he could see her face, he almost felt the life might return to her. Covering her face was the final act. Once hidden, she would be gone forever. He lingered, staring at her, clenching his jaw, willing her to move, to open her eyes, to smile at him…
But she would not. He steeled himself, and covered her face, stitching quickly as a fresh inundation of tears flooded his cheeks. It was done. She was gone.
The two carried the bundle out to the road to the waiting cart. There were already three bodies lying there: the morning’s haul from only a pair of streets. Before the carter reached the end of this roadway, the cart would be full. The wailing and sobbing from all over the city bore testament to the misery of all as carts like this took away their loved ones.
Berenger climbed onto the cart’s bed and took his wife and child from the carter, He laid the little parcel down with care, moving another figure to give his wife and child a little more space. Then he clambered down leadenly, and stared as the cart began to clatter off over the cobbles, the figures in the back jerking with every rut and stone as the wheels rattled on.
He was empty. There was nothing in him but a great void. He wanted nothing now; only the oblivion that wine would bring. But he was rooted to the spot, blind to everything but this last glimpse of his wife and child. He watched as the carter stopped a few doors farther along the street, knocking at the timbers, standing aside as two servants brought out the heavy body of Berenger’s near-neighbour, Master Richard. The corpulent figure was slumped between them like a sack of turnips and the carter was forced to help them, grabbing the feet while the servants held tight to the shoulders. The men struggled, the carter hauling while the two servants attempted to push the figure up, and Berenger saw the carter stand on his wife’s corpse.
He bellowed, and a sudden rage overwhelmed him at the sight of his Marguerite being trampled. His scalp tightened, and he had a clenching in his belly as though a fist was gripping his stomach, and he started to run at the cart.
The carter had the winding sheet now, and gripped the dead man’s body under the armpits, tugging. One of the servants joined him on the cart, and the two succeeded in lifting the body to sit on the edge. Some of the winding sheet snagged on a splinter or a nail, and the servant below tugged to free it.
It was then that the carter saw Berenger running at him. He cried out to the servants in alarm, before yanking hard at the body. There was a ripping as the corpse’s covering tore, and while the servant and carter pushed and shoved, the sheet came away, and Berenger saw the wide-eyed face, the pale features, the loosely moving arms of his neighbour.
The carter turned, knelt on the board and snapped the reins. The horse jerked, began to move while the servant sprang down, and before Berenger could reach the masked carter, he had rumbled his way round the corner. Berenger ran on a few paces, fuelled by the anger that roiled in his breast, and then, suddenly, he stopped, and almost dropped to the ground as the bitter misery gripped him like an ague.
One of the servants recognised him and stood uncertainly while Berenger covered his face with his hands, trying to get a grip on himself. All he could see was the body of his Marguerite and baby being trampled by the carter.
Berenger glanced at the closed features, the weary, peevish expression of a man impatient with expressions of grief. Everyone had suffered, everyone had lost. What right did Berenger have to indulge himself?
“Leave me!” Berenger snapped, feeling the rage grow. He ran, and when he turned the corner, he saw the cart half-way up the next road. There was a woman in the street, weeping, and the carter had pulled up, dropping from the step like a man sapped of all energy.
In the back of the cart, Berenger saw his neighbour’s body resting on top of his wife’s. The breath stopped in his breast for a moment, and then he gave an inarticulate bellow and ran straight for the carter. He had no thoughts of his actions, only a blind, unreasoning hatred: for the carter, for the city, for the land which had once seemed so full of promise, and now was filled only with death and destruction. It was as if he was swimming in a sea of blood. All about him was red, raw with rage and hatred. He didn’t even know he was hitting the man until he was pulled away.
Panting, struggling to free himself, he stared wide-eyed as the carter was helped up from the ground. He was shaking his head like a dog drying after a dip in a river, blood running from his nose.
“Let him loose,” he said. “It wasn’t his fault. He’s lost his family.”
Berenger’s arms were released, and he clenched his fists, but only to press them to his eyes as he fought to keep the tears at bay. He had nothing inside him, no more anger. Just this all-consuming emptiness.
“I saw… you stood on them,” he said brokenly, staring at the corpses in the back of the cart. His Marguerite was still concealed in her winding sheet, but next to her was the merchant. His cold, dead eyes like those of a fish on a slab.
“I lost my mind,” Berenger said. It felt as though a leather strap had been placed about his head, and was tightening as he spoke. Fleeting glimpses of Marguerite kept flashing into his mind; pictures of her laughing, smiling, feeding their son…
“That man hasn’t died from the plague,” one man said.
Berenger glanced at him, then back to the dead Richard.
“There are none of the marks of the plague, no buboes, no stench… he isn’t stiff.”
“It takes time for a body to stiffen,” said the carter. “He died a while ago. Look at him!”
They all knew. They had seen enough corpses, especially in the last couple of years while the English armies ranged over France, and now, with the corpses piling daily.
A man and woman were watching, and Berenger overheard them.
“She won’t miss him, you mark my words. Never was there a more brazen hussy. She’ll be entertaining her menfolk with pleasure, now that they can visit without risking her cuckold husband’s displeasure,” the woman said, short and plump like a hen.
The man was milder. “Come now, mistress! You cannot seriously believe that! Mistress Alice has lost her husband.”
“I’ll bet her purse won’t be any the lighter,” the woman said tartly. “With all her admirers she won’t go without!”
“Admirers!” the man scoffed. “As if you would know! Who would blame her? Master Richard couldn’t keep his tarse in his hosen. She told him loud enough for the street to hear that he must throw over his latest wench only last week.”
Berenger rounded on her. He knew the woman.
“You would accuse her, Gossip, when her husband is barely cold? You spread malice for no reason other than to bolster your own self-importance,” Berenger snapped.
She gasped, and the man with her opened his mouth to remonstrate, but Berenger had heard enough. He turned on his heel and made his way homewards.
It was late in the afternoon that the knock came at his door.
Berenger’s maidservant had left when Marguerite first began to show symptoms of the disease raging through her body, and he must shift for himself. After years of marching with the King’s armies, he was competent to make oatcakes and cook pottage or roast a rabbit, so he did not miss a cook, but he grunted with annoyance when the rap on the timbers came a second time.
Outside stood the carter, unhappily screwing his cap in his hands. Behind him was a man of middle-height, with the broad shoulders and thick neck of a man used to fighting. He stood with his head lowered truculently.
“What of it?”
“I am John of Furnshill, of Sir John de Sully’s retinue. I would be grateful for a talk.”
Berenger eyed him for a moment before nodding.
Soon they were sitting before his fire. It was John who spoke. ‘You know of the death of your neighbour, Master Richard Allchard?”
“Yes,” Berenger said, giving a cold glance at the carter.
“There have been rumours suggesting that his widow could have been responsible for his death. Do you think that?”
“How should I know? I am a dealer in clothing, not a Keeper of the King’s Peace!”
“But you do know her?”
“I have met her.”
“And you were happy enough to defend her name.”
Berenger groaned inwardly. His temper had got the better of him and now it had got him into trouble. ‘I heard a woman maligning her, and–”
“And you defended her. There must be a reason for that. You were a soldier once, so I doubt it was a merely altruism on your part.”
“My wife has died. I just … I didn’t want to see Mistress Allchard pilloried for something when she’s grieving for her husband.”
“Others feel the same,” John said.
He stared at Berenger. His eyes were a very dark colour, and under that intense gaze, Berenger grew increasingly uncomfortable. It made him grow choleric, but before he could blurt out an angry remark, the fellow jerked his head toward at the carter.
“You saw the body. This man reported it.”
The carter threw a plaintive look at Berenger.
“He had no buboes, and he was coming out of rigor mortis,” John said flatly. “He did not die of the plague.”
“Perhaps he just didn’t show the same symptoms.”
“He had none. He died a little while before, long enough for the rigor to wear off, and then his household kept his body until the carter was coming down the road already. Others say he was murdered. People suspect his widow guilty guilty. They clamour for her head.”
“Perhaps she did it.”
“Perhaps she did. But Sir John de Sully would not willingly see her pay for another’s criminal act. He asked that you should conduct enquiries.”
“Me? Why me?”
John of Furnshill gave a twisted grin. “Perhaps Sir John feels you still owe him service?”
Berenger rapped on the door with his knuckles and stood back. Everyone tried to keep away from others in case the pestilence might migrate from one to another, but Berenger was careless of danger. His wife was dead. Death held no fear for him.
A servant with eyes rather close-set and a thin face opened the door.
“Tell your mistress I would speak with her.”
After a brief delay while the man explained she was in mourning and not seeing visitors, Berenger pushed his foot against the door and shoved it wide.
The man squeaked and placed his hand on his dagger, but Berenger quickly grasped his hand and forced it away. An archer’s grip is second only to a blacksmith’s, and the servant paled as his fingers were crushed like so many pea-pods.
A voice called to him before Berenger could quite break them. “Master Fripper, I would be glad if you didn’t damage my staff.”
Berenger turned, releasing the man, who gave a whimper and clutched his hand to his breast.
She stood in the screens passage, pale and resolute. Waving away her servant, she motioned towards a parlour, and Berenger followed her inside.
Mistress Alice was no beauty. Her face was too round, her eyes too wide-spaced, her mouth too thin, but for all that, there was a vivacity about her that was appealing. Berenger could easily imagine that she would ensnare a lover.
Not that she was showing signs of such appeal just now. Her eyes were red-rimmed, as were her nostrils. She had tried to keep her hair beneath her coif, but bedraggled strands dangled. When she tried to smile, she looked like a condemned woman pleading with her hangman.
“Well? What was so important you had to break my servant to speak to me of it?”
“Mistress, it gives me no pleasure to be here.”
“Why are you? Is it to accuse me? You wish to say that everyone thinks I killed poor Richard? That he was murdered by me? I know what the gossips say!”
To Berenger’s consternation, she began to weep, her shoulders jerking, although she made no sound.
“Mistress, I am sorry,” he said.
“Everyone is sorry, yet they accuse me. Well, I have not killed anyone, and certainly not my husband. Yes, he took many mistresses, but he always has. Why should I kill him?”
“Perhaps he died of natural causes?” Berenger guessed.
“How can I tell? He began to complain of torment in his bowels, and then writhed on the floor. Nothing we did could help him.”
“Master Ashton? You think that sour-faced blood-taker would come to a house hearing someone was unwell, now that the pestilence is here? He refused to visit.”
Berenger had heard of Ashton, a physician who had served in Edward’s armies, but whose knowledge was restricted to the mending of bones or phlebotomy. It was not surprising that he would avoid a house with the pestilence. ‘Did you explain your husband was suffering?”
“Yes, but he would not come. Richard died and I sat up with him. We called the coroner, but he said he had no time. No one would come,” she said, and the tears ran without pause.
“Why would people say you killed him?”
“They are jealous? How should I know?”
“Do you have a lover?”
“How can you ask me a question like that?” she spat, but did not deny it.
“Who is he? Others will tell me if you don’t,” he said.
She tried to refuse but finally threw up her hands in resentful submission. “Andrew Peachi, if you must know!”
Berenger had little desire to question Peachi. He had met the man: a vain, fool of some five-and-thirty years. The idea of renewing his acquaintance was not appealing.
“Your husband had no sign of the plague?”
“And there was no mark on his flesh? I assume you did search his body?”
“I looked, and so did my steward, but there was no wound.”
“So it must have been something he ate,” Berenger said. “If there was murder done here, the only means must have been poison. What did he eat that evening?”
“He and I ate the same foods,” she said.
“We had some Norwegian pasties, meat brewet, a roast of beef, a larded broth, a blankmanger, fresh fruits, and… oh, I can’t remember. Speak to the cook.”
Was Richard poisoned? Who does Berenger suspect? And why is Sir John de Sully interested? Find out in the second instalment of Historia’s serialisation of A Plague on your Business by Michael Jecks, excerpted from the HWA medieval short story collection, By the Sword.
Michael Jecks is the author of over 40 published novels, including the Templar and Medieval Murderers series. His latest is The Dead Don’t Wait (a Bloody Mary Mystery), which came out in paperback on 28 February, 2020.
Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken by Josse Lieferinxe: via Wikimedia
Young woman lying dead in a shroud, from the Vaux Passional: via Wikimedia
Miniature by Pierart dou Tielt showing the people of Tournai burying victims of the Black Death from Gilles li Muisit’s Chronicles, c1353: via Wikimedia
Man and woman from BL Sloane 1977: via Wikimedia
Cleric, knight and workman, representing the three classes, from Li Livres dou Santé: via Wikimedia
Siège de Calais from Vigiles de Charles VII: via Wikimedia
Oiseuse admitting the Lover from Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris: via Picryl
Doctor and patient from Recueil des Traités de Médecine by Gerardus Cremonensis: via Wikimedia