July 26th 1100
As his servant moored the boat, King William II of England cast his eyes one last time over the unworldly book. Then he closed and fastened the box it was in and slipped it back into his satchel. He climbed out of the boat, boots squelching as he stepped onto the muddy shore of the River Thames.
“Remain here,” William said to the servant. “I shan’t be long.”
The evening dusk thickening fast, William entered the great keep of the Tower of London and climbed the spiral staircase to the second floor, finding his chief minister, Ranulf Flambard, waiting inside the Chapel of St John. With its imposing tunnel-vaulted French stone nave and thick, round columns supporting unmoulded, unadorned arches, the chapel was a stark and uncompromising demonstration of Norman power. One that normally helped William feel in control. Not today.
“Good evening, Your Grace,” said Ranulf in his usual rumble of a voice, deepened even further by the cold, impenetrable stone that surrounded them.
“That remains to be seen, Ranulf,” said William, opening his satchel and lifting out the box.
“I take it you’ve made a decision about the book, then.”
For weeks the book had brought William nothing but confusion and turmoil. There was so much about it that didn’t make sense. Its constitution, for one. It was so cleanly cut and shaped, with thin cover boards dressed in a strange, dark green cloth so fine it was near-impossible to trace the thread, and William could not imagine fingers small enough to have woven it. Its only markings were The History of Computer-Aided Timetabling for Railway Systems and Jeremy Jennings gold-tooled onto the front and spine, and these were an even bigger mystery. Jeremy and Jennings looked like names, his experts said, and The History of Computer-Aided Timetabling for Railway Systems were utterly meaningless but for a few of the words vaguely resembling some Latin ones.
And if these frightening irregularities weren’t enough, what lay beneath the book’s covers was worse. Far worse. A part of William wished he’d never opened the damn thing and yet another, bigger, part of him knew that God had endowed him with this knowledge on the understanding that he, the king, would do something about it.
“We must protect it,” said William, brushing his fingers over the oak frame and riveted iron bands of the box. “This book is evidence of a serious threat to the kingdom and of those behind it. It is an omen. An omen foretelling a future that God is compelling me to avert.”
“Yes, sire. How would you seek to protect it?”
“By hiding it. The prisoner’s people must know we have it. They could be here in London right now, waiting for the right moment to come and retrieve it. It cannot remain here.”
“I agree,” said Ranulf. “They will be coming.”
“I am charging you with the task of hiding it, Ranulf. Find a low-born family of minimal conspicuousness and make sure they understand the importance of the book and its secrets and can be trusted to protect them.”
“Yes, sire. I will go tonight.”
Though reluctant to part with it, William handed the box to his chief minister, reassuring himself of his decision. Then he reached beneath his cloak and tunic and unhooked a silver chain from around his neck, on which hung a small key. “Here. You’ll need this. It is the key to open the box.”
Ranulf placed the chain around his own neck, tucking the key into his bishop’s robe. “And what of the prisoner? Do you have a plan?”
Oh, how William wished he did. Unfortunately the outlander who was found with the book was but another lingering mystery in an ever-deepening quagmire of them. “Not yet. We must keep trying to ascertain the prisoner’s intentions and role in all this.”
Ranulf frowned. “But how? We have no way of communicating.”
William sighed. “It is a good question, my friend. But I fear, as of this moment, the answer evades me.”
“Then perhaps a quiet execution is the most sensible course.”
“It could well be. But I must not risk provoking an enemy I do not know how to fight.”
“I understand. Will you inform the Council about any of this?”
William shook his head. “Not until I determine who can be trusted. The lesser curia regis will meet in two days to discuss Aquitaine. I want the book gone and hidden before then.”
William’s long-planned invasion of Aquitaine was to be the pinnacle of his reign. He owed it to his father, who had afforded him a great honour by giving England to him instead of his elder brother, Robert. William had enjoyed some successes—securing his hold on England, recapturing Maine, subduing Robert—but none so big as his father’s victory at Hastings, earning him the name ‘Conqueror’. A fact he was reminded of all too often by the embroidery that hung above the Palace of Westminster’s main staircase. A variation of his father’s favourite scene from the enormous, ostentatious portrayal of the Norman conquest that adorned the nave of Bayeux Cathedral, it depicted his father astride his horse holding up the crown of England, with defeated Saxon king Harold II lying trampled beneath his horse’s hooves with an arrow through his eye.
Aquitaine was to be his Hastings. He would soon replace the embroidery at Westminster with a depiction of his own great victory. The book—and the prisoner—were distractions he couldn’t afford.
Ranulf shrouded the box in the folds of his robe, bowed and left the Tower. William wheezed a sigh. He wasn’t sure whether it was with relief, doubt, fear—or something else.
August 2nd 1100
It was two days before William was due to leave for Aquitaine with his army and the nights of the past week had not been kind, the book and prisoner still plaguing his every thought. He hoped today’s hunt in the New Forest, followed by a riotous feast with singing, dancing and general mischief, would help ease his disquiet and free his body of some tension, if just enough to be able to sleep.
William set out from his hunting lodge with four friends. For a time the five men stayed close, laughing and drinking and swapping war stories. Then William’s younger brother, Henry, set his sights on a boar and wandered off on his own. Soon Robert Fitzhamon and William of Breteuil diverged as well. Only Sir Walter Tyrell, Lord of Poix-de-Picardie and a recent addition to William’s court, stayed at his side.
A stag grazing between two elms caught William’s eye. With a shining, creamy brown coat with white spots and enormous branching antlers—perhaps the biggest he’d seen—it would be a satisfying kill. He climbed down from his horse and tied it to a tree so he could pursue the stag on foot.
He drew his bow, but the loud crack of a twig behind him prompted the stag to scarper into the trees.
William sighed, lowering his bow and arrow. “Walter, I thought you were a master at this.”
His admonishment drew no response. He turned around slowly.
He hadn’t suspected Tyrrell could be one of the prisoner’s people, not for a second. The big, beefy Englishman didn’t seem clever enough to muster such deceit, and yet now William found himself staring at the head of an arrow. Were there clues to his duplicity that William missed?
Though full of doubts, questions and regrets, William put on a mask of calm and confidence, whispering simply, “So you’re one of them, then.”
Purkis, a poor charcoal-burner, was leading his horse and cart through the woods. He’d been in the New Forest all morning, collecting fallen wood, stripping it of its bark and loading it onto the cart, ready for burning and selling back home.
The fresh, foggy morning had matured into a blistering afternoon and Purkis was cooking in it. As he headed home, the sun was high and poured its heavy rays over his back, burning through his linen tunic, which was stuck with sweat. He was going to have to start leaving earlier. This heat was too much.
He stopped in a patch of shade to rest, cool and drink. His water skin was nearly empty. His head was beginning to throb.
“Not far now, Samson,” he said to his horse. “I’m hankering for a cup of ale. What about you?”
Samson gave a gentle whinny and Purkis smiled and stroked his smooth brown muzzle, saying, “Nice bowl of pottage, too. Cecilia has some fava beans and a carrot, I think. Oh. And a little bit of that nice bread from the market, if there’s any left.”
Purkis felt a rumble in his belly and rubbed it gently. “Actually, I think we finished it, didn’t we?” He looked at Samson, as if expecting the horse to respond and tell him no, there was plenty of bread left. Alas, he just stared with those beautiful amber eyes of his.
Purkis’s smile drooped. Food was scarce in his house. Selling charcoal only brought in a small wage, but it used to be enough to feed his family. Then King William raised the taxes, whittling down that wage till his family’s dinner table looked more and more bare. As always, peasants like Purkis bore the brunt of the king’s greed. But what could he do? He just had to get on with it. Though his wife’s pottage was watered down a little more each day and he’d forgotten the taste of meat, there was no use being glum about it. Not while this king lived.
If only someone might rid the kingdom of this selfish foreign ruler.
Purkis swallowed his hunger and tugged the rope round Samson’s neck. The faithful horse pushed on. A moment later, he heard the clatter of wood tumbling and turned to see a pile of logs fall off the back of the cart. The cart had rolled over something. He dropped the rope and walked to the rear of the cart. Just a stray root from the beech tree they were passing. He replaced the logs.
He was about to continue on. Then footsteps crackled a few yards away and he froze.
He glanced around slowly. The footsteps weren’t loud enough for Purkis to tell what direction they were coming from.
A fallen branch snapped. He flinched. Now his gaze was drawn to the right—and a figure mostly obscured by trees, fifteen to twenty feet away.
“Walter, I thought you were a master at this,” said a man with a smooth voice, edged with authority and a touch of annoyance.
A pause. Then the same voice said, “So you’re one of them, then.”
One of King William’s hunting parties? Must’ve been. Stringent forest laws forbade the killing of deer or boar by anybody other than the king’s hunting parties. It was punishable by death.
But the king and his subjects were Norman. Normans spoke French. Purkis couldn’t understand a word of it.
This man had just spoken English.
Samson had started to graze on what little grass was available where they’d stopped. Purkis moved closer to the man who had just spoken, hoping for a better look.
He eventually caught the man’s bottom half. His top half was still obscured in part by the leafy branches of an oak. He saw the fringe of a thin black cape, elegant blue hose and polished boots, and could just about tell that his blue-sleeved arms were raised.
Purkis moved again. Now he could see that the man was tall, broad-shouldered and formidable. He caught one side of the man’s round face and saw why his arms were raised. His bow was nocked, an arrow ready to fly.
He couldn’t see the target. Probably a deer. He looked in the arrow’s direction and thought he saw a pair of antlers emerge from the shadow of a tree. No. Just a tree branch, missing one side of its bark, pushed by a brief wind into the sun’s glare.
“I take it your name is not Walter Tyrrell?”
Oh. The smooth voice wasn’t coming from the man with the bow and arrow. There was someone else. But who? The trees were thick here. Purkis moved again.
“No,” said the man with the bow and arrow.
Now Purkis saw the owner of the other voice. A short, rotund man with a yellow moustache, flushed cheeks, small eyes encircled by dark rings, and curly, yellow, bedraggled hair sticking out from underneath a red velvet hat trimmed with feathers. He was in a long, dark green tunic with fancy-looking patterns stitched in golden thread, fastened at the waist with a belt encrusted with glistening jewels of different colours, and his thin legs were encased in hose that were the same deep shade of red as his hat.
But that looked like…
No, it couldn’t be.
The yellow-haired man said, “Then who—?”
“That doesn’t matter,” said Tyrrell, or whoever he was, his voice much deeper and harsher than the yellow-haired man’s. “Just give me the book.”
The book? What book?
The yellow-haired man seemed equally puzzled. “What book?”
“Don’t play games with me, Your Grace. This arrow is pointed straight at your heart.”
Purkis swallowed—it was like forcing down a rock.
He couldn’t believe it, yet he knew it to be true. The regal clothes. The golden head. The red complexion that had earned him the nickname ‘William Rufus’. For some reason he was using the tongue of the common people, but there could be no doubt. This Walter Tyrrell was threatening to shoot the king.
Purkis felt a tightening in his chest. Just ten minutes ago, he had silently wished the king dead. Could his treasonous thoughts have precipitated this?
“What amusement,” smirked the king. “A traitorous pretender accuses me of playing games.”
Tyrrell just glared down the shaft of his arrow. “Where is it?”
“Safe,” said the king, evidently knowing of this book all along. “Hidden. And if you think I’m ever going to tell you where, you may as well shoot me now.”
Tyrrell pulled back his bowstring and released it with a twang. The arrow sliced through the air with a faint hiss and thudded into the king’s chest.
Purkis clamped his hand over his mouth to suppress a horrified gasp.
The king thumped into a shallow bed of bracken. Purkis moved in a little closer, ducked behind a large gorse bush and peeked over the top.
The king clung to life, fingers clenched around the arrow in his chest, blood spilling over his fist and onto the bracken. Then he wheezed his last, his head drooped to one side, and his gaze froze in death.
Purkis shuddered. A small twig snapped beneath his foot.
Tyrrell reacted, twisting in Purkis’s direction.
Damn, he’d heard it.
Purkis stooped low immediately, hopefully obscured by the bush.
No, no, no…
Did he see me?
Purkis could still see the king’s killer through gaps in the green, spiny branches and egg-yolk-yellow blooms.
Tyrrell walked forwards, heading in Purkis’s direction. As he did, he took out a new arrow.
Purkis stopped breathing, a knot lodged in his throat. He shut his eyes.
Tyrrell’s boots crunched over fallen leaves and twigs, drawing closer and louder.
A sharp sound split the air. Purkis’s eyes sprang open. Tyrrell had stopped. It was a bizarre sound—quite musical—and appeared to have saved Purkis from getting shot.
Tyrrell dug his hand inside his tunic, pulled something out.
Now that he was distracted, Purkis moved back to a safer, more distant position, angled so he could see what was going on through a gap in the trees.
Tyrrell was holding something. A flat, black, rectangular object. He tapped it with his finger. The music stopped. Tyrrell lifted the object to his ear.
What was he doing?
“Hello,” Tyrrell murmured.
Me? Is he talking to me?
“The king is dead. Did it work?”
There was a silence. A moment later, he continued, “Then I’ll continue searching for the book.” Another pause, then, “I’ll have to lie low for a while, change my identity. I think the king’s chief minister, Ranulf Flambard, might know—”
His sentence trailed off, unfinished.
There was a much longer silence, and it was almost as if he was listening to the object at his ear.
Was he mad? He certainly seemed it. He finally said, “Are you ordering me to make another jump?” After a pause, “When?”
A further long silence was followed by, “So shouldn’t I stick around here, find out if Ranulf Flambard was the one who…”
Another unfinished sentence.
What in the world was going on?
Tyrrell gave a sigh and muttered, “Yes, ma’am. I’ll take care of it.”
Then he lowered the black object from his ear, tapped the front of it again, and slipped it back inside his tunic. There must’ve been some holder or small bag that was sewn into the lining.
As he withdrew his hand from the receptacle, something else came with it. Another strange object—small, cylindrical, white. He fumbled with it with both hands. There was a faint click. Purkis peered hard, saw an opening in the top of the object, and recognised that it was a kind of bottle or pot, and Tyrrell had just removed the lid.
Tyrrell used one hand to tip the bottle into the other and gently shake it. A tiny object the colour of blood—possibly a stone or jewel—rolled out into his palm.
He threw up his palm to his mouth, and the stone was gone, swallowed.
He replaced the lid on the bottle.
Purkis took a breath.
His question was answered instantly, as a bright and soundless light—white, hot and painful—seared into his eyes, and made him jump back instinctively.
For a moment he saw nothing but white. He shook his head. The whiteness dissolved steadily to blurry browns and greens and, with a rub of the eyes, solidified to trees and vegetation.
Tyrrell was gone. He could not have walked or run away; Purkis would have heard his footsteps.
He had—impossibly—disappeared into thin air.
Purkis waited a minute or so, then stepped forwards through the trees and came upon the body of William Rufus, the king he’d wished dead and was now very much so.
He stared at the body. The king’s face was no longer its famous red, rather a spectral grey, since most of his blood had now leaked into the forest floor from the puncture in his chest.
He couldn’t just leave him there.
He returned to Samson, still happily grazing. He drew the horse and cart towards the body, unloaded the wood—which he would hopefully collect tomorrow—and lifted the body into the back of the cart. He resumed his journey to Canterton, where he lived, to tell Cecilia that he would be taking the body to Winchester, the capital. It was the least he could do.
Would he tell Cecilia—or anyone for that matter—what he had seen?
No, he decided.
He didn’t see anything.
Some things were best left alone.