“Since 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 merit.”
– Cardinal of Como, Secretary to Pope Gregory
The April dawn was grey, damp and muddy and tinged with the mixed smell of early spring and winter’s rot.
Death before breakfast was tiresome Hall thought, placing his feet with exaggerated care on the muddy slope and gripping the shoulder of his young guide, as he slid down the steep embankment.
He shivered in the damp spring air, wondering again why God in his infinite mercy chose to interrupt a warm breakfast with an untimely death.
“Where did you say Coburn passed?” The white-haired woodcutter’s death was no surprise. His hacking cough rasped off the garden croft’s walls each time he rolled his wood cart past the old stone building on his way to the manor.
“Not far now, Father”. The thin youth tugged his woolen cap lower over his greasy blond hair.
A cock crowed raucously in the distance as Hugh Hall and Thomas turned past the laneway that marked the edge of the manor proper, although the estate spread much wider, encompassing both farm and woodland. The manor’s owner and Hall’s patron, under whose protection and influence Hall was able to maintain his secretive profession as a Catholic priest, was one of the largest landholders in Warwickshire, holding claim over a significant piece of the gentle rolling slopes of the Midlands, the farms, pastures and the broken patchwork forest that was once the primeval Forest of Arden.
“Thomas…I thought Master Coburn’s place was east of the road? Are we astray?”
Thomas glanced back. “Sorry, he isn’t at home Father. Not far now, just ahead,” he said in an encouraging tone. Indeed, from where he stood Hall could see a thin trickle of smoke rising over the copse of trees. Thomas Clopton was 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 anxious and 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 Father 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. A rabbit regarded the two passing men with wary eyes from the meadow before resuming his breakfast of clover.
After about a half mile, 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. Father Hall was huffing by the time they reached the oaks and paused, leaning against a convenient ancient to catch his breath.
Hall straightened himself up and silently cursed what was becoming an irritating cross-country odyssey. The next time, he vowed to himself, they could bring the body to the road, where the man could be shriven with some degree of decency and ease, instead of making his priest slog through the spring mud. A late-hunting owl hooted in the distance, returning home from a long nocturnal stalk of mice. The noise always made Hall uneasy. Owls were notoriously bad luck and although Hall despised the foolishness of the ignorant, he couldn’t escape the slight shiver of foreboding that the sound arose in him.
Within a few minutes Hall could see through the thick trees to a low open grassy clearing within which a small fire was visible. Thomas shuffled through the greasy accrual of leaves littering the copse floor, 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 his back, set the branch aside and stood, brushing his hands fastidiously on his thighs. Father Hall stopped, glancing about in sudden suspicion. No wrapped body awaiting its final journey was in sight.
“Well?” Hall said in a curt voice, “You’ve dragged me from my bed on what is obviously a fool’s errand. What do you want?” he snapped, finding some momentary comfort in his sudden burst of anger.
The man turned, smiling. One look at that gravestone smile was enough to silence Father Hall. The man was young, but tall and whip-lean, with tight 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 travelers’ cloak but underneath a dark and richly embroidered doublet was visible.
“Father Hall.” The man gestured expansively. “How kind of you to join us on this most auspicious of morns.” The man’s smile faded. “I can see we are going to be marvelous friends.”
Hall snorted. “Marvelous friends call on me at the manor house. They don’t make me march all over God’s fine 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 man said, gesturing with his free hand at a small sausage-laden pan balanced on the edge of the fire.
Hall regarded the man with a stiff expression on his face. “I think,” he said, “that I had best be going.” Father Hall turned away 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, one of whom winked at Father Hall and gestured with his stave in a rude and mocking manner.
The man by the fire had resumed his seat and spoke without turning. “Best sit Father, we have matters to discuss, not the least of which is your bloody Papist profession.” The man pointed at the damp ground by the fire. “Sit. Now.”
Hall looked at the man for a long uncertain moment, and then sat on the fallen log.
The man smiled, but it was bleak and unconvincing. “We have matters to discuss Father Hall.”
Hall interrupted. “I am a gardener, not a priest.”
“Oh really?” asked the man sardonically, “And you tend your hedges with this?” The man leaned over and snatched the small leather bag Hall carried. He pulled out the small silver crucifix and rosary and tossed them with contempt at Hall’s feet. “Given that we went some considerable trouble to get you here Father, don’t treat me like a fool.”
The man stood and began to pace back and forth between Hall and the fire. “You know,” he said in a conversational voice, “they burned Protestants under that bitch Mary not twenty miles from here? Tossed them on the fire like so much kindling.” The man turned back towards Father Hall. “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.”
Thomas edged nervously back several paces but stopped when one of the men by the tree stood and moved forward a pace. He glanced at Father Hall, a frightened look on his face.
“In God’s name,” Father Hall asked in a controlled voice, “what do you want of me?”
“What does any man want of a priest? Knowledge.”
Father Hall was confused. “You wish instruction in the True Faith?”
The man burst into sardonic 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.” The man paused and began again, “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 turned and faced Father Hall. The look on his razor face caused Father Hall’s breath to catch in his throat.
The man leaned close to Father 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, Father Hall,” he paused for a moment and dropped his voice so Father Hall had to strain to hear him, “are going to give it to me.”
For a moment Hall felt suspended in time, his stomach tight. He forced himself to look steadily into the man’s level gaze. There was something deeply feral in the man’s dark eyes; crow’s eyes, sharp, predatory and hungry. He shuddered and forced himself to respond.
“In the name of Christ I will give you nothing. I know nothing!” Hall protested.
The man reached up with his right hand and closed it around the priest’s throat.
The iron hand tightened. Hall choked, his fingers grasping at the man’s arm. Hall 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 began to blur into formless grey and red shadows. The lack of air was overwhelming, shattering, immersive. He could feel nothing but a crushing pain in his throat and hear nothing but the frantic beat of his pulse pounding. Hall tried to pray but found his panic rising. He felt slow and stupid, buried in a deep fog that seemed to grow and reach out for him with a hungry malevolence. I am lost, he thought, Lord take me now.
An instant later he was kneeling on the damp ground, the tang of moss and woodsmoke in his nostrils, taking deep racking breathes, and coughing at the pain in his chest. The pounding in his chest and ears subsided. He lifted one muddied hand from the dirt and gently grasped his own throat. Still alive, he thought, praise God.
Two pair of fine leather boots stood in front of Hall’s face. Hall looked up. Expressionless, the man looked down at him.
“No martyrdom today, Father. Sorry, it would give me immense pleasure to send you footing it to the bowels of Hell, but not today.”
Thomas had been watching the events unfold with growing apprehension. He pushed his lank hair out of his eyes and darted a quick glance away. 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 man who now stood behind him. Thomas shivered and by reflex crossed himself.
Hall reached up and massaged his throat, mumbling a prayer. He knew he was down among the fallen.
The man knelt down by Father Hall on one knee. “How are you feeling Father Hall?” he asked, his tone curiously solicitous. Hall gazed up. He was afraid. He tried to remind himself that what Christ endured on the Cross was far beyond his own suffering.
But he was afraid. Deeply afraid.
Father Hall was no martyr. Living in a comfortable lodging, with food, wine, clothes and the protection of patronage, Hall was ill-equipped to steel himself to endure the rigors of any martyrdom. Comfortably ensconced in the heart of the Catholic supporters of Warwickshire for years, grown comfortable in his hidden practice, Hall had little to fear of pursuviants. The worst fate he would face, he had thought, would be an exile to
France, where he would join the growing community of exiled Englishman in and live out his remaining years teaching a new generation of exiled priests. Rheims
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 and stood upright. “Well, Father, 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. Father Hall levered himself up with his hands and sat on the mossy log, massaging his battered throat, with a cold, sick feeling growing within in him.
“May I have the kindness of borrowing your knife, Father?”
Startled by the request, Father Hall 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 one of the sausages.
“I use it for cheese.” Father Hall muttered, confused over the abrupt turn of events from overt violence to cheery breakfast.
“Father,” the man said through a mouthful of sausage. “I am concerned that you not be too angry with poor Thomas here.” He gestured at Thomas who was still standing stock still beside one of the grinning stave-wielders. The man gestured at Thomas with his free hand, indicating he should step forward. Reluctantly Thomas did so, with a wary, startled look on his long face. His eyes darted and he licked his lips.
“I know he tricked you into coming to our little breakfast but he did so under the best intentions – mine.” The man laughed.
“And Father,” the man continued, “He is a good boy, very honest and attentive. He earned his money bringing you here.” The man stood and placed his one arm around Thomas’s shoulders. He handed Thomas two small coins with his free hand. Thomas stared at the silver in his palm and then grinned, relieved and pleased. “So Father, I want you to forgive this poor boy his trespasses.”
Father 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 still fresh in his mind. “Thomas,” Father Hall said flatly, “is a betrayer and has lied to me. 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 Father Hall, a curious expression on his face. “No forgiveness in your soul, Father?” he asked mockingly. “I know you think the boy lied to get you here but he was quite truthful.”
Father Hall looked up, puzzled. The man smiled and with no change in his expression, thrust Father Hall’s 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 before pulling 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. 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. Hall still sat unmoving on the log, frozen in shock and horror. Thomas had both hands grasping his torn throat, when choking on blood, he collapsed into the dirt and was still. One leg twitched spasmodically, still trying to run.
In the silence, Father Hall could still hear Thomas’s wet and laboured breathing, which gradually slowed and then muted into silence.
“Didn’t I tell you he spoke the truth?” the man said, his voice soft and reasonable. He knelt and picked the up the blade from its resting place. “Better 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.”