The Royal Coroner
by Matthew Morde
(not for duplication)
Dawn washed over the English countryside as the royal coroner and his squire rode toward Barrow Hall. Their horses plowed smoothly through the gray mists pooled in the marshy lowlands while the knight, his grim duty at the forefront of his voracious mind, surveyed their bleak destination. Ahead, the steel-blue sky clamped the manor house atop an anvil-shaped hill, cold light pressing down on the sagging slate roof, stamping the dilapidated structure into the ancient mound.
The coroner led his companion from the fog up a narrow lane pinched between gnarled hedges. As the lane emerged on top of the hill into the manor croft, the riders keen eyes hunted through the predawn light for signs of ambush. Outbuildings leaned around them like derelict guards asleep at their posts. Livestock and fowl still slumbered in their pens and roosts. No servant was in sight. The house stood at the manor’s core, a neglected assemblage of limestone and crumbling mortar that had centuries before been a proud Saxon hall. The edifice was dark save for a sliver of candle light squeezing through slit windows in the rock. As the men reined in their mounts, a dog barked one time inside the dilapidated hall.
Lingering in his saddle, the coroner listened for movement inside the house. Running a gloved hand through his gray-flecked beard, he wiped away the sheen of moisture left behind from the mist. His lantern-shaped jaw and furrowed brow were taut as cow leather as he considered the dangerous office about to be performed. The house waited like a silent, brooding bear.
Beside him his squire whispered in the tongue of his Norman homeland. The coroner turned to his companion.
“His squire, certainly,” the knight replied, fluently employing the other man’s native tongue. “He is a cruel and churlish knight. From what I have observed, I doubt the remaining household will interfere.”
“Does he expect us?”
“Our return will be no great surprise.”
Both men climbed down from their horses. They shed their riding garb, slinging their mud-stained cloaks over their saddles before tethering the somber beasts to a nearby oak. Each man wore a hauberk, the knight’s made of plate that protected his flesh down to the waist. His squire’s was made of mail, and dangled like a silver bell over his thighs. A sword and dagger were sheathed in the belts of each man. Before continuing, the knight cautioned his friend.
“Chatelain. Stay on your guard. I know you think him old… well, he is old,” admitted the coroner. “I fought against Sir Wigmore at Kenilworth.”
His squire, a handsome, dark-haired young man, cracked a devilish grin.
“Am I about to witness a meeting of old foes?” he asked enthusiastically. “A clash of walking sticks?”
“Sheath your waggish tongue. Wigmore was a ruthless champion of the old King. War and tourneys are his bread and wine. That he still endures proves he has lost little stride. I would we were both feeble, parrying rods of beech. Take care.”
The Norman’s smile faded, yet a roguish light still flickered in his eyes. He nodded his head.
The coroner faced the manor house, hoping his impulsive companion would heed his advice. Opponents who underestimated Sir Andrew Wigmore, be the battle true or mock, risked a brutal demise.
With one hand fixed to the hilt of his sword the knight rapped on the door with the other. It was opened promptly by a sallow youth with sunken, bloodshot eyes that spoke of a sleepless night. Sir Wigmore’s page wore a guarded expression as his moonfaced gaze took in the aged knight and his princely squire. He seemed neither surprised nor dismayed by the sight of armed soldiers at his lord’s threshold in the predawn light.
“Good morning to you, Sir Richard,” said the boy, his tone hesitant as he pivoted his gaze up at the towering knight.
“Please summon Sir Wigmore.”
“Sire is in his chamber. I am to lead you there.”
The page stepped aside and bowed his head. Richard lowered his head through the threshold, his gray hairs brushing the lintel, and peered inside the darkened hall like a cautious bird. The room was unoccupied save for the gangly boy. Gesturing for his squire to follow, Richard and Chatelain stepped inside.
Closing the door behind them, the page guided coroner and squire through the gloom across the earthen floor toward an adjoining room. He knocked but did not wait for a reply as he pushed the door inward. Candlelight swept over Richard and Chatelain, making their armor shine.
A grizzled man sat at the far end of the chamber, leaning back on a wooden stool, his broad-shoulders resting against the wall with his soiled boots propped up on an unkempt bed. Wigmore’s craggy features were trained on a flagon balanced on his groin, his eyes concealed by a rotten curtain of peppery curls. The knight’s tunic and leggings were in little better state than his tattered locks. A naked sword leaned like a ladder against the bridge of Wigmore’s legs.
The haggard warrior seemingly took no notice of his visitors, yet beneath a mantle of detachment and decay, the coroner knew that Wigmore was predatorily aware of his visitors.
Scanning the candlelit room, Sir Richard stepped inside. Apart from the bed and stool, Wigmore’s apartment was furnished with a trestle table littered with parchment and deflated wineskins, as well as an assortment of lit and unlit candles. The floor was coated in a moldering layer of reeds and decaying vegetable rinds. The chamber reeked of piss.
Making space for his squire, Richard slipped behind the table while Chatelain, frowning as he observed his master crowd himself amongst the furniture, wrested the door from the page and sealed off the room.
The rasp of the iron bands grating against limestone tore the air as the door shut. A funereal silence followed as Richard, employing his self-devised craft, held his tongue in the presence of a cornered suspect. It was an off-putting tactic, that often produced favorable results. After some while, Sir Wigmore parted his shredded hair with a slight tilt of the head, revealing his pale green eyes. Since having last locked gazes two days prior, Andrew Wigmore’s eyes now shone a little brighter. Malevolence flickered in that wispy gaze. Sir Richard remembered those pale jade eyes from decades before when they shone like cursed emeralds, burning across swords tangled like goat horns atop arrow scoured battlements. The longer the old foes stared at one another, the brighter Wigmore’s eyes glowed, like embers stirred by a draft brought in by a thief through the door.
“The usurper returns,” Wigmore’s voice was sluggish with wine. “Come to occupy another castle, eh?”
Richard held his tongue while beside him, Chatelain mumbled.
“More like a pig pen,” he said, looking with disgust at the filthy floor.
Wigmore leaned his head back further, causing his horseshoe of hair to swing back and reveal the permanent scowl fixed to his scarred and craggy face.
“Why do you return, rebel?” he demanded.
“You know why,” said the coroner.
“You have no proof,” he flatly replied.
Richard raised his arm and pointed at Wigmore’s hand as it gripped the flagon handle.
“Your ring is missing its stone.”
The lord of Barrow Hall lifted the flagon from his groin and turned the vessel sideways, scrutinizing his gold ring and its missing inset. The dregs of his wine emptied unnoticed onto the knight’s tunic.
“What of it?” he asked, subdued.
Richard reached into his vest pocket and retrieved a tiny white orb.
“This,” he said, displaying the pearl between his thumb and forefinger, “I found it last night, at the site where we found the ravaged body of the thatcher’s daughter.”
Sir Wigmore squinted at the gemstone then returned his stare at the coroner.
“Last night? You found the thatcher’s daughter two days ago.”
“I had since observed the disrepair of your ring and deemed it prudent to return to the last two of the murder sites. My previous inspection of Dame Sarah’s mortal wounds, as well as the similar wounds inflicted upon the young widow had revealed indentations caused by a small, metal object capped with a round protrusion. Your ring matched the indentations in both women’s flesh and bone, while the markings on Beatrice Goodkin revealed a slightly modified cause of death. Goodkin’s murder, the third chronologically, was committed after your ring had lost its pearl.”
“That oyster’s seed and this paltry trinket demonstrate my guilt?” Wigmore scoffed, fluttering his fingers in the air.
“Taken by itself, the evidence is tenuous at best. Threadlike. In the context of my other findings, it is the hangman’s noose around your neck.”
Wigmore said nothing but instead offered something vile from the back of his throat to the floor at Richard’s feet.
Seeing that the conversation was at its end, Richard continued, his words and tone becoming mundanely official.
“As royal coroner invested with the authority of the crown, by decree of his majesty, King Edward, I charge you, Sir Andrew Wigmore, with the rape and murder of the villeins Beatrice Goodkin and Sarah Thatcher of the village at Barrow Hall, and the freeholder Sarah Waulle, also of Barrow Hall.”
Wigmore remained aloof in his chair, yet there was strength within his prostrate manner; a feline spring coiling beneath the knight’s relaxed person.
“You mean to arrest me then,” he said. “You have no authority.”
“I have just related my authority,” Richard coldly replied. “You have raped and murdered three women, each of them tenants on your land. You have betrayed the eternal contract held between a lord and his people, who provide your comfort in exchange for their protection. Yield and you will be taken to court at Ipswich. The severity of your crimes will at the very least see you banished from the realm, at most you will be castrated or executed. Your lands will be assessed and seized for the King’s deodand.”
The accused’s face darkened with every word.
“A criminal turned lawman,” he spat. “It is akin to a whore running a nunnery.”
Wigmore let the slights hang in the air, searching the justice’s glacial expression.
“Rebellion burns in your veins,” he continued. “You willingly send a fellow knight to the headsman over a couple of wenches? It comes as no surprise to me. You betray your station, Usurper, and in doing so you carry on your habitual defiance of God and the King. I say again, by God’s soul, your authority is nothing to me, Sir Richard Keep. Nothing!”
His grip tightening on his sword, the coroner locked his frost-tinged stare on the murderous knight, anticipating Wigmore’s assault.
“Kick aside your sword,” the coroner demanded.
Wigmore’s jaw tightened as he pondered the warriors crowding his bedchamber. After a moment, he shrugged and dragging his leg off the bed, knocked his sword clanking to the ground.
“On your feet.”
Languorously, the master of Barrow Hall set his flagon on the floor then lowered his other boot. As he leaned forward from the wall, his body rang with the unmistakable jingle of chain mail concealed beneath his tunic. Rising to his feet, the knight squared his broad shoulders toward the coroner, a derisive smirk on his face. While not possessing his opponent’s height, Wigmore’s brawny arms were almost as long. The veins in his forearms were as thick as eels.
“You are a fool, Richard.” he sneered. “You deepen the ranks of your enemies. Like de Monfort, you will pay the price for betraying your peers. Noblemen do not abide traitors.”
Richard drew his sword.
“Yield to trial and test the tolerance of your fellow nobles,” said the coroner. “We’ll see which one of us is deemed a traitor.”
Wigmore’s teeth flashed while his eyes blazed inside his skull like a besieged tower burning within. With serpentine speed, his hand shot into the blankets on his bed and withdrew a loaded crossbow.
Richard grabbed the lip of the table and heaved it into the air, scattering candles and beads of hot wax across the floor. As the bolt punctured the planks shielding his chest, the chamber door burst open as a swordsman, clad from head to toe in battle attire threw himself upon Chatelain. His squire reeled and disappeared beneath a wave of steel while Richard drove the heavy trestle of wood through the air, piling it like a battering ram against Wigmore as the murderous knight bent for his sword. The warrior cried out as he was jammed against the wall, his sword arm pinned against his leg.
Across the lip of the table, Wigmore and Keep traded beastly stares, the former wildly gnashing his teeth at the coroner’s nose. Richard shifted his feet, raising himself to his full height as he kept his shorter opponent pinned against the wall. The master of Barrow Hall grabbed the shaft poking through the table and drove the bolt deeper through the wood. Richard leapt backwards, dodging the iron barb as he released his timber shield. As the table fell between them Wigmore reached to the ground. Drawing his blade, he froze, his mouth agape as his dazzling green eyes inspected the plane of steel disappearing into his chest. As the light ebbed from Wigmore’s gaze, Richard withdrew his sword. His opponent slid lifeless to the ground.
The coroner turned to his companion.
Chatelain stood rubbing a bruised shoulder, looking down at Wigmore’s squire. The Norman’s dagger stood like a grave marker from the dead man’s visor. Beyond him, standing in the shadow of the next room, the page looked dispassionately upon the carnage, a spear held limply at his side.
“You saw the outline of the crossbow in the bedding?”
Richard looked back at his squire.
“Wigmore was a professional soldier.” The knight paused to catch his breath. “Drunk or sober, the ill placement of his sword belied a ruse. I did not see the crossbow but surmised its presence.”
Chatelain rolled his eyes.
“When did you surmise its presence?”
The coroner blinked.
“Before positioning myself behind the table. Why else would I hinder my sword arm!”
Chatelain shook his head.
“I would pay you a compliment,” the Norman smiled. “Some drivel about your falcon’s eye, your Solomon wit. But I’d sooner make haste from this piss-soaked tomb. I’m in need of ale and a woman’s pillow.”
Before the justice could respond, his squire retrieved his dagger and strode from the room, patting the page’s head as he passed. Startled, the sickly youth fled from the hall. The coroner turned back to Wigmore, inspecting the corpse’s wrinkled face. Even in death, the man scowled.
Wiping his sword clean on Wigmore’s blankets, Richard left the room pondering a private truth of his authority, that it felt never weaker than when enforced by his blade.
The Road from Ipswich
The royal court having met and disbanded after two days, the coroner of Suffolk County, accompanied by his squire, was the first of the itinerant justices to depart the modest town of Ipswich. In an unseemly fashion, they fled like bandits before dawn, spurring their restless horses through the muddy tangle of streets. As they rode through the gatehouse and beyond the city walls, Sir Richard Keep relished the brisk autumn air stinging his eyes as the wind scooped the city’s stench from his nostrils.
The riders did not slow their mounts until their horses trailed foam from their lips and sweat made their black coats glisten like lacquered armor. Around them the crofts and fields surrounding Ipswich gave way to an archipelago of forests scattered across brown seas of marsh and meadow land.
Letting their horses rest, Sir Richard and Chatelain ambled along the English highway, admiring the bands of morning sun auguring through the clouds above. In good cheer or bad, or in the presence of princes or beggars, Chatelain’s thoughts could not be kept silent for long. As both men rode side by side, Richard’s garrulous squire unleashed his tongue and complained in his own ribald way, about the royal eyre.
“The gall of you Englishmen,” Chatelain declared. Richard’s attendant spoke with relentless disdain for all things this side of the Channel.
“To think that that man shall now serve as a conduit to God,” he continued. “I suppose God whispered into the ear of Lord Prudhomme’s son, wash your hands, young bachelor. We wouldn’t want bloody hands at your father’s banquet tonight. That would not do. You might befoul your mother’s pies! Oh, and since you are tidying up, best toss the maid’s body into the moat. Nothing pleases me more than seeing one of my children enjoying the water on a hot afternoon.”
“Careful, my friend,” Sir Richard feigned caution toward the sky. “God might hear you.”
“As if the Holy Father would step foot on this forsaken island.”
“Blasphemy!” Richard said with a wry smile.
“You mock, but I can tell you are more upset with the vindication of that knave than I.”
Richard sighed, his good humor fading a bit.
“I brought seven men to face trial,” he said. “Each was found guilty for his crime. I cannot complain over such an outcome. That said, the son of Lord Prudhomme did avoid a fitting punishment. But he was not vindicated.”
“Murder without consequence is vindication. His taking the tonsure is little more than a hiccup to a man of his status.”
“I suppose even justice needs a rest.”
Chatelain continued, unimpressed.
“What kind of law allows a nobleman to trade the gallows for a haircut and a robe.”
“It’s a Norman law,” Richard countered.
“He will be able to rule his father’s estates as a rector, ravishing disciples unwilling to supplicate to that young man’s base desires. ”
Richard raised an eyebrow.
“You are one to reprimand another for base desires.”
Chatelain opened and closed his lips, looking as though someone had stuffed wool into his mouth. After a moment, his bemusement was broken apart by a devilish grin.
“I do not appreciate you bedding my witnesses,” the knight continued sternly. “I mean it, my friend. It hinders both my investigations and my holding of court.”
The squire’s smile stretched further, his thoughts warming his cheeks like a kettle, until the Norman’s ticklish mood burst forth.
“I had my own investigation to carry out.”
Richard snorted with disgust.
“By God, I swear…”
“The widow Atwell had vital information to offer.”
“You are not amusing.”
“Did you not meet the Lady?”
“Did I not bring her to testify at the eyre!”
“Was she not lovely at court. Such polished white skin. So tall. So statuesque. I swear she stood as still as Lot’s wife. Perhaps we should return offer to escort her back to Woodbridge.”
“Hear me, squire…”
“She had Danish blood,” interjected the Frenchman. “I had yet to bed a Dane.”
“Where do you think you Normans come from?”
“You do not believe me? Fine. But heed this. We are not storming the brothels of Acre,” Richard continued. “Keep it sheathed during our investigations.”
Chatelain chuckled then stopped as a rider appeared around a bend in the road ahead. Sitting atop a confident and gently trotting mare, a humbly dressed man wrapped his arms around his horse’s neck as though it were the prow of a ship floundering in a storm.
“He rides like a Scottish King,” joked the Norman as Richard made a silent, more objective appraisal.
The mare snorted and shook her head with frustration as the rider, spotting the two men in the road, pulled sharply at his reins. More out of spite than obedience, the horse obeyed vigorously, digging its hooves sharply into the road and nearly flipping its rider over the mare’s head. Richard and Chatelain waited patiently as the rider struggled to regain his balance. The royal coroner took note of the young man’s simple but carefully maintained attire. A well-worn tunic dyed blue with a wool undershirt and clean leggings hinted at the rider being a prosperous peasant or burgher, possibly a freeman. That he was blatantly unaccustomed to his charge but not particularly embarrassed to have its control revealed that the horse was not his yet he had the right to manage it. Richard determined that the stranger was employed by a prosperous landholder or a minor lord. When the man at last spoke his rustic speech confirmed his class standing.
“Good afternoon, my lords,” he said, bowing his head so grossly as to invoke a quick sneer from Chatelain, who despite his own servitude to Richard, abhorred clumsy subservience in others.
“I am Thomas Child. I ride in search of the royal coroner, Sir Richard Keep.”
“Good day to you, Master Child,” Sir Richard replied in English, adding that he was the man being sought.
The blossoming of relief on the peasant’s face caused the knight to smile.
“A long ride, Master Child?”
“Not so long, no,” the man replied, slightly abashed. “It is only my second time on a horse.”
“If such is the case, then you take to it very well,” said Richard kindly. “Where do you come from in search of me?”
“Lord Gilbert’s estate. I know Lord Gilbert well. I take it some violence has occurred.”
“It has, Sir Richard. A cotter, Nicholas of Gipping, is dead. Murdered. May God grant his soul peace,” he added mournfully.
“When was his death brought about?”
“Last night,” Master Child hesitated. “Or yesterday. We do not know for sure. The hue and cry was raised this morning.”
Richard and Chatelain exchanged surprised glances. With an entire county to serve, it was rare for the coroner to be so near a mysterious death. The prospect of investigating a murder so soon after it had occurred made the knight tingle with anticipation.
“Lord Gilbert must have heard that the royal eyre was being held at Ipswich,” Richard concluded.
“His lordship said as much before sending me to find you. I expected to find you there.”
“Has the body been moved or disturbed?”
“No. Lord Gilbert has prevented such from occurring.”
“Your lord knows my methods,” said Richard, his eagerness growing stronger by the moment.
“You are employed by Lord Gilbert,” the knight continued. “Are you a clerk? No. Wait. Do not tell me.”
Master Child shifted uneasily in his saddle as the knight’s sharp eyes picked over the commoner’s appearance. Thomas was a young man, perhaps twenty years of age. His discomfort with addressing men of greater station was exacerbated by his unsure and animated seating arrangement. Standing on his own feet, Master Child was likely a strong but reserved individual. Besides a few missing teeth and a rash bearding his clean-shaven face, he was of good health. His stockings clung to dense, sharply cut calves while his arms and shoulders were as solid as an ox yoke. He looked to be near five and a half feet in height. Thick brown hair curtained his tan face. His eyes were large, dark pools that absorbed life’s rain with calm ripples of emotion.
Returning to his dress, Sir Richard’s gaze fell on what he had first mistook for a dagger. Stuck in the peasant’s belt was a small wooden rod, covered in notches. A tally stick for keeping track of Lord Gilbert’s accounts, rents, receipts, and other exchanges on the nobleman’s estate, revealed Master Child’s trade.
“You are the reeve!” Richard was impressed. “An accomplishment for one so young.”
Thomas Child nodded, his chest puffing slightly with pride, only to be deflated by Chatelain’s scornful tone.
“He looks too honest to be a reeve,” the squire spoke in French.
“Fermez-le!” Sir Richard snapped. “Come, Master Reeve. We will follow you to Nacton Wood at once. We will converse on the way.”