'This Son of York': Preview

You wouldn't judge a book, not even an ebook, by its cover, nor would you buy a pig in a poke. Here are the opening chapters of the thriller novel 'This Son of York'...

This Son Of York

By David Batten-Hill      

                                                                                     Chapter 1


Miles Ryley's long, dark sleep was about to be disturbed. From above where he lay a strange rumbling sound approached, becoming increasingly louder as time went by. Scrabbling, scratching noises began, followed by a deeper thud that shook the woodwork overhead.

Later, the sounds of digging continued for quite some time. Mysterious clunks and scrapings were accompanied by the sound of metal on metal. Then the rumbling came again, much louder this time, with the creaking and twang of tightening ropes. None of this could possibly come as a rude awakening to Miles – he'd lain silent and immobile beneath the ground for nearly 660 disregarded years. But Miles's unwitting legacy was to torment mankind in ways unseen for a period far longer than living memory could recall. Miles's irreversible, malevolent bequest was to be unleashed on his unsuspecting successors.


                                                             Chapter 2

A piercing wind scoured Minster Yard in York, plucking at Matt Walsh's jacket as he hurried along the narrow street with its huddled buildings, towards Bootham Bar. Matt knew that York's north western gateway had stood on its Roman foundations since the 12th Century, but he had contemporary matters on his mind. He shivered, more from excitement than from the cold. His backpack weighed heavy on his shoulders but he remained light on his feet. No one would have called Matt burly but his wiry build belied an unusual degree of strength, in the mental, as well as the physical sense.

Matt shouldered his way past other pedestrians as he skirted the solid flank of Bootham Bar, crossed the busy junction and headed across Exhibition Square towards King's Manor. This noble mediaeval building's various occupants over the past five centuries had held their places in York's history but now, through the efforts of its present custodians, a new piece of history was about to be made at King's Manor. Or perhaps it wasn't…time would tell.

King's Manor was now, to give it its full title, the University of York Centre for Mediaeval Studies and Department of Archaeology. Today, a meeting of minds was scheduled to take place at 10.30am. And Matt was on time.

'Hey Matt, ready to rock?' said a voice, as Matt entered the courtyard.

He turned to look at a small, approaching figure. Like Matt, Sally McFarlane was a postgraduate archaeology student, starting out on the road to her master's degree and eager to progress.

'Hello, Sal. Yes, I've got my notes prepared, have you?'

'In a word, nearly. But then I'm not such a swot as you.'

'Flatterer', said Matt.

Matt and Sally had been fellow students for three years. They were never an item but they found, to their mutual satisfaction, that they worked particularly well together. Whether this was because they hailed from opposite ends of the British Isles is a moot point. Sally's down-to-earth border accent was pleasant to Matt's ears. She thought Matt's Home Counties tones a bit on the posh side for her liking but they weren't a major issue.

As they climbed the stairs together to the Principal's Meeting Room, King's Manor's stone-framed, mullioned windows fended off the cold wind. Sally and Matt seated themselves at the long conference table and set out their documents; their notes, sketches, graphs and photos suggested they were prepared. For what they were prepared was another matter. Each knew something was brewing but neither quite knew exactly what it was.

'What do you reckon's got Homer so excited?'

'If I knew that, I'd know what to expect.' said Matt. 'All I know is that the dig to outdo all others is on the cards. And you shouldn't be so disrespectful of our worthy Professor Simpson. His Christian name is Reginald.'

As if summoned by the mention of his name, the Professor entered. Like King's Manor itself, he'd scarcely changed in years. His rumpled suit was entirely at odds with any contemporary concept of dressing well but it sat easily on his slight frame as he took his usual place at the head of the table. His ever-present bulging briefcase was given its customary place on the table and he beamed at his companions.

'Good morning, protégés,' he said, 'Are we ready?'

'Yes, Professor.'

Professor Simpson fished in his briefcase and extracted a bulky file bound with an imposing red ribbon. Sally and Matt were familiar with the Professor's quirky approach to his calling but they also knew that his benevolent and occasionally befuddled manner concealed the sharpest, most logical mind they'd ever encountered. If the Prof had a bee in his bonnet, it would be there for a reason.

'Cast your minds back to the fourteenth century,' he said. 'What can you tell me about it?'

'Long time ago,' said Sally.

'Edward II moved his government here and prepared to fight Lancaster's barons.' said Matt, '…and he held parliament at York in 1322.'

'They added the Chapter House to the Minster around 1340; that was about 100 years after they first started building', said Sally.

'And Scottish raiders tried to attack Queen Isabella but she got away.' Matt grinned at Sally, as he habitually did when her ancestors' misdemeanors came up.

'Very good but all this is small beer. What was on everyone's mind at the time?'

'The Hundred Years War?'

'Yes, Matthew…and what else?' said the Professor.

'I know, said Sally brightly, 'The Plague.'

'Exactly. The Grim Reaper started calling hereabouts in 1349, and made six more visits before the end of the century. It's believed over 5,000 died.'

'It was worse in the 17th century.' said Matt.

'Quite so…in London. However, though the Black Death decimated York in 1604 and again in 1631, the Great Plague of 1655 didn't affect this neck of the woods at all. But we digress. Who was contemporary with the 1349 outbreak?'

Sally answered animatedly, 'Ryley.'

'Oh come on, Sal,' Matt was sneering. 'all that was nonsense. It was just popular myth.'

'Says you.'

'Says me and a lot of scholars.'

'Now, now, children.' said the Professor. 'Many arguments generate more heat than light and this one is beside the point. But something new has been revealed about the so-called Great Ryley'.

'What?' said Matt, 'that this self-proclaimed hero actually wasn't a total charlatan who fathered a string of bastards by different wealthy women throughout the county? That he wasn't at risk of being hung, drawn and quartered for treason, or that he didn't actually escape to France in 1350, to live debauchedly ever after?'

'Scoff away, my young friend, his mortal remains lie on our very doorstep, as it were.'

'With respect, sir, who says so?'

'Not who, what.'

The Professor slipped the ribbon from his file with practised fingers. He opened the file and carefully drew out a clearly ancient document.

'Put these gloves on and read this, very carefully.'

Matt took the document, reflecting that its contents had obviously thrilled the Professor. It was a sizeable parchment, with the tattered remnants of a faded ribbon depending from a cracked wax seal. The expected fragility of the parchment had been increased by its having been folded, rather than rolled. It had evidently been folded for a long, long time.

Laying the brittle sheet with infinite care on the table, Matt began to study it. It was an imposing piece of work, hand-written in a neat cursive script by some unknown calligrapher. Its five paragraphs each began with an illuminated letter and the document ended with a baroque touch. The signature had energetic embellishments; a bold paraph – a flourish – decorated it.

The text was in Latin, of which Matt could understand only a limited amount. He turned to the accompanying translation, and read…

In the name of God. Amen.

In this the year of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ MCCCL, on the day counted as the fourteenth of the month of May, this is the deposition of Wolfstanus Grenedyk, of Hob Moor Castle…

'It came to my notice at the beginning of this year that my former friend hath taken advantage of not only my good nature but of my lawfully wedded wife. Seemingly in mourning over the passing of this man, she had become affected more than was seemly. In the climax of a bitter argument she, being greatly distressed, confessed that she is with child by Miles Christian Ryley, of this parish.

I am myself bitter, not merely as cuckold, but also for the rightful vengeance I deserve having been denied me. For it is the case that Ryley hath borne the brunt of the rightful vengeance of a like cuckold. On the seventh day of the month of March, the cowardly Ryley was run through in a duel with my true friend Stephen Cherton, also of this parish.

Yet vengeance of a poor sort shall be mine. The claims of Miles Ryley to be of noble extraction are but a sham. He has been naught other than a fraud and a pretender, taking that not his by right and weaving explanatory tales that are nothing other than chicanery. Ever thus, his claim of fleeing to France is but lies, as is vouchsafed by the circumstances of his cowardly demise.

Further, this deposition is also to reveal that the misguided allies of Ryley hath conspired to give him a Christian burial in hallowed ground, although he deserved not even a pauper's grave. Even in death he hath stolen, for the identity on his simple headstone is that of another, a good man and true. The resting place of Henry James, believed murdered by robbers on his travels doth conceal the remains of Miles Ryley. Henry James, I believe, was himself murdered in this parish by the associates of Ryley; where his remains lie God alone knows.

So I beseech just and good men to mock and jeer after the memory of Ryley, for his acts as a miscreant and for his desecration as a Satanist of hallowed ground. Seek his clay at St Lawrence's churchyard, twenty paces east-southeast of the tower. Seek not to declare 'God rot his mortal soul' for he hath no soul. As lief spit on the grave whose ignoble contents beareth a noble name.'

Signed on the 14th day of May, MCCCL.

Wolfstanus Grenedyk

I, as Clerk to the Sheriff, witnesseth on this day of our Lord.

Matt laid the translation down with a sigh.

'So, the Black Death didn't get him…the jealous husband did.'

'And the second jealous husband in line had a go, too,' said Sally.

'But is this genuine?' asked Matt, 'It looks it but we all know about fakes.'

The Professor consulted his notes, ' It seems that the parchment and the ink used belong to the date given and the seal is correct. The style of the script and the illuminations are as expected and the structure of the language used and the nuances within it are believable. Carbon dating places the document within the implied period. We've no reason to doubt its authenticity.'

'What does it mean to us?'

The Professor pursed his lips, 'It means, Matthew, that we may be able to explode the myth of 'The Great Miles Ryley' once and for all.'

'Oh, how? And why?'

'As you said, Ryley was notorious. There's no denying he was, er, colourful and he pulled a good deal of wool over a great many eyes. There's no record of his being sentenced to death for treason and I doubt he had the Royal ear, as it were, though he had connections. More to the point, he had more than merely an eye for the ladies, as well as the knack of relieving honest, if gullible men of their money.'

'How can that be known?' Sally asked.

'Well, Matthew's picturesque allusion to a string of bastards is verifiable. Perhaps it's significant that Prudence Grenedyck took her own life in September 1350.'

'Is it possible Grenedyck had something to do with that?' Sally asked

'Most likely, my dear. But only life was cheap in those days. Ryley was able to finance a lavish lifestyle through – ah, questionable – schemes, from gambling dens to a claimed means of turning lead into gold. It seems that the proverbial fool and his money always were easily parted. However, we can find out a great deal from Ryley's remains. Did he die by the sword? Was he a Satanist? Will the remains really be his? But we must take care.'

'I think, Professor, that even Sally and I know about mediaeval remains' being irreplaceable.'

'Quite so, Matthew, which is why I'm entrusting you and Sally with overseeing the dig.'

Matt goggled slightly at this great honour. He'd been involved in digs before but it was extremely rare for a postgraduate student to be in charge.

'Thank you, Professor. But why the particular need for care?'

'Well, preliminary surveys show the burial is much as we expected. Ground penetrating radar reveals that the coffin is less than two metres below the surface. Interestingly, it's a large, metallic container.'


'Yes. As I said, Ryley had connections. In those days – and long after – only the bodies of the rich were buried in coffins with a metal element. Chances are, after all this time, that it's a lead coffin; but for gold, any other metal would have corroded to nothing long ago. Grenedyck hated Ryley but his friends clearly wanted him to be buried in style.'

'And in secret,' mused Sally.

'Obviously – but it's a paradox.'

'Certainly is,' said Matt, 'But I still see no need for more than the usual degree of care during the dig.'

'It's because we must keep it secret at all costs.'

'Why?' asked Sally.

'Really, my young friends. Isn't it obvious? No? That isn't really surprising. After all, given what Grenedyck says, we can suppose that Ryley was unlikely to have been a plague victim. But what feared structures lie outside the walls of our fine city?'

'Plague pits.'

'Quite so, Sally. We know that, throughout what we might call York's Seven Plagues, the bodies were buried outside the city…without the walls, as was said. We also know that the plague itself died out but no plague grave hereabouts has been opened since…and the mortal remains of plague victims lie in St Lawrence's churchyard.'

Matt chuckled, 'I can imagine what the press would make of our plans, then. How do we keep it under wraps?'

'My colleagues and I have devised a perfectly simple solution. You could say that Miles Ryley was murdered, albeit in a duel. So we're going to have a murder investigation 660 years after the crime. North Yorkshire Police are willing to disguise the site as a crime scene.'

'So we'll have the white tent and the overalls?' asked Sally.

'Yes, and squad cars and an obvious police presence. That's why you must work fast, the police can't stay for very long.'

With an expansive gesture, the Professor produced another thick folder from his briefcase, handing it to Matt.

'In here you'll find all the information you need. Grid references, survey reports, soil analyses, and the results of the tests on Grenedyck's deposition. You, as I said, will oversee the dig and Sally will assist. You'll also have the University's excavation team at your disposal…and there's a statement for everyone involved to sign.'


'Yes, one that promises dire consequences involving the full weight of the law if a single word of the truth is breathed. Even the police officers will be required to sign it! The excavation begins on Monday, March 15th 2010. Now you've been given the good news, I can give you the bad.'

'Which is?'

'It begins at 6am,' the Professor smiled, 'an early start is standard police procedure for an exhumation but I'm sure you'll cope! You both have much to do, good morning.'

Good afternoon, Professor, Matt thought as he and Sally made their slightly bemused way down the stairs. Each was burdened with papers, each was thrilled with the honour of being entrusted with their respective important jobs. And both were also aware of the vast amount of work the responsibility entailed.


                          Chapter 3

'Idle bastards!'

Mike Ross didn't need the blue lights on his police patrol car but he used them anyway as he drove at speed through the empty, gloomy streets. Ninety nine percent of York's citizens were asleep and Ross envied each and every one of them. He'd surfaced from the warmth and comfort of his bed at 4.30am and was speeding south along Foss Islands Road, York's inner ring road, on his way to (as he put it) 'Babysit a bloody boffin'. He didn't need to drift the car spectacularly, tyres yelping, through the red traffic lights at the turning by Walmgate Bar, York's south eastern gateway, but doing so made him feel marginally better. Reining in his ill temper, he turned the car into the gateway of St. Lawrence's churchyard. More blue lights flashed around him as he drove slowly on past the massed police vehicles.

Mike parked among the blue and yellow-chequered police vans. His car's headlights picked out a chunky stone structure, the stubby tower that was all that remained of the original, 12th century church. Some yards away, an off-white scene of crime tent looked at once incongruous and supernatural; floodlights burning inside it lit it eerily. A generator yammered nearby and spectral figures in white overalls, and wearing biomasks and overboots, stood chatting. In the pallid pre-dawn light, several uniformed officers stood in a small group. The white bars on their reflective jackets looked like ribs, throwing the blue flashes back towards their source. The scene looked like it belonged in a cheap horror film; Ross thought this entirely appropriate...


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© David Batten-Hill, 2014