A hand tapped Crispin’s shoulder from behind as he was finishing his business against an alley wall. ‘Can’t a man take a piss without being harassed?’ he growled.
‘You’re Crispin Guest,’ said the male voice.
Crispin finished, set his cotehardie to rights, and turned. ‘What the hell do you want?’ He shut his mouth when he recognized that the middle-aged man was a priest in a dark gown.
‘I had no wish to disturb you, but I could not find you. I looked on the Shambles—’
‘I am situated the same place where I have been for these last four years, my lord. On the Shambles in an old poulterer’s shop. I used to be above a tinker’s but it burned down…’
‘So I have been told.’
Crispin set off in that direction, hoping to make it before the streets got too dark. But of course, the sun lingered longer in these warmer months at the beginning of summer. It wasn’t likely to grow dark until near Compline.
He found he spent more time away from his lodgings since Jack had married the Langton’s niece last year. Even though having two servants proved useful, three mouths to feed had taxed their resources and he seemed to work harder than ever searching for clients. And now that the girl was swollen with child, his sense of obligation to their growing household swelled as well. He felt the lord again, responsible for the well-being of his tenants. Yet even so, Jack was no mere tenant or even servant. He was his righthand man. And Isabel…Isabel had been a tempering presence. With a female now among the men, Crispin found he held his tongue more often these days when he would have gladly sworn his favorite blasphemous oaths. And he did not bring as many women to his bed, for her simple raised eyebrow was like a wagging finger of disapproval. Ridiculous to accede to the whims of a servant! He could have ignored it. He’d never done such things in his manor in Sheen. But she was also the niece of his dear friends and the sole heir to their tavern, the Boar’s Tusk, and so he was finding it difficult to refuse her subtle morality.
Crispin’s outlook on life itself changed by the hour. For Jack would someday, in his inheritance from his in-laws, be more prosperous than was Crispin. And the prospect of that gave him pause.
A footstep beside him reminded that the priest was still following him.
A client. He needed him. But clerics gave him the shivers. There had once been a day when he could trust most of them…but that day seemed to have disappeared along with his knighthood.
He glanced at the man sidelong. ‘And why do you seek me, father?’
‘I scarcely know how to begin.’
‘At the beginning is generally the best.’
‘But I do not know when it began. Only that it had. And I fear the answer when it comes.’
Crispin stopped and slowly turned to the man. ‘You speak in riddles.’
‘Do I? It was not my intention, Master Guest. Only that…I can barely explain it myself.’
Crispin rubbed his clean-shaven chin. ‘I think a drink is in order. Come.’ He led the way just up to the Shambles, but turned sharply and headed up Gutter Lane to the Boar’s Tusk.
He caught Gilbert’s eye as he entered, and the tavern keeper quickly deposited drink for them. He did not stay to talk with Crispin as he usually did, but noted curiously his clerical companion.
The priest settled in and took up the cup, drinking thirstily. Crispin sipped his. As usual, he sat with his back to the wall and a view of the smoky room, with its sagging rafters and dingy walls. ‘Now then. What is it that concerns you and needs my help, my lord?’
The priest poured more and drank another dose before he finally set the cup down. Close and in the light, Crispin could study his dark gown, threadbare in some spots, patched in others. The priest had a square jaw, darkened by beard stubble. His eyes were small but glowed with an intensity of fear. His hair could only be described as luxurious, black, in thick waves, unlike Crispin’s own black hair that hung lankly nearly to his shoulders. The priest’s facial features were pleasant and slightly patrician. Crispin wondered vaguely which noble family he might have come from. He thought the man would be just as at home in mail as in his clerical garb.
‘It is horrific, Master Guest,’ he said, shaking his head of dark hair. I can scarce speak of it.’ He leaned into the table and spoke confidentially, his heavy brows clutching together over his eyes like fists. ‘They walk. At night.’
Crispin leaned in. ‘Who does?’
Crispin slowly sat back and measured the man. ‘You jest.’
‘I assure you, I do not. Come. See for yourself. After the sun sets.’ He took another hasty gulp. ‘You’ll see them.’
Crispin eyed the man’s unsteady hand on his cup and wondered if strong drink were not more to the point. He leaned in again. ‘Has anyone else seen these…these apparitions?’
‘You think I’m mad. I thought so, too. Until the gardener saw them as well. I was telling him about it, exhorting him to get inside, to stop tending to the vines so late after dark. He was as skeptical as you are. I warned him to go inside. And it wasn’t more than a quarter hour later that he was pounding on my door, begging to be let in. White as bone, his face was. Eyes as wide as mazers. “Yes,” he said, he’d seen them. Dragging their coffins over their shoulders, treading through the churchyard into the mist. He called out at first, and then one of them turned to face him. Oh, he gave such a description that would curdle your blood, Master Guest. The same I knew in my own heart when I looked upon those poor devils.’
Crispin raised an admonishing finger. ‘Now wait. You both saw these supposed walking corpses?’
‘There is nothing “supposed” about it. We saw them.’
‘And…did they cause…er, mischief?’
‘As soon as I spied them, I fled into the rectory. The next morning, I went about the churchyard, sprinkling holy water. I found…’ He licked his lips. ‘Disturbed graves. Some were opened, clods of earth cast aside, and those that had coffins, I found the lids ajar. When I inspected further—with fervent prayers and the large crucifix from the altar, mind you—what I saw… Oh Master Guest! I do not know what mischief they might have got to, but when I moved the lids, I saw blood upon the linens covering their faces. Blood…on their mouths. They had become bloodsuckers!’
The man seemed genuinely alarmed, and Crispin had no doubt that something had awakened such dread in him, but he could not reconcile it to this fantastic tale. ‘Something has disturbed you greatly, Father…Father—?’
‘Bulthius. Of St. Modwenna’s church.’
‘Father Bulthius. Something is amiss. I shall…I shall investigate it for you tonight, if you wish. My fee is six pence a day.’
‘I will pay it. Anything is better than going on with this demon’s march night after night.’ He struggled at his belt, and dug deep into his pouch, pulling out more than six pence. ‘Here, Master Guest. Six pence and more. For I cannot imagine it shall all be resolved in one night.’
‘You might be surprised, my lord. Depending on what I find.’
‘You will find demons. And if you do, then I will gird myself and help you dispatch them.’ He rose. ‘Meet me at my churchyard. The vicarage is near All Hallows Barking.’
‘In the shadow of the Tower. I am aware of it.’
‘Tonight, Master Guest. And then you will see. God save us.’ He crossed himself and bowed to Crispin, who bowed back and rose as the man strode between the tables to escape. Crispin watched him go with a niggle of something in his gut, but he left it aside as he looked down at the coins gleaming on the table. He shrugged, scooped them up, and dropped them into his coin pouch. He made sure to leave one with Ned, Gilbert’s sour-faced servant, and left to go to his own lodgings…