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The Professor’s Task
On September 12th, 1901, Professor Albert Longden wrote in his diary: Up early again tomorrow to continue examination of Winchester archives. Struggled with eyesight yesterday after 10 hours poring over manuscripts handwritten in Middle English – but information discovered is so compelling, was impossible to stop reading. Must remember that research is not historical project – it has a sole and specific purpose: to provide sufficient background to enable Dr Conrad to make an informed diagnosis of Victor Gorenhoff’s mental state.
Will sleep tonight with cucumber slices on eyes in hope it mitigates eyestrain.
Next morning, Longden was back at the archives, where he continued to read and translate portions of a 14th century book pertaining to the Prior of Winchester. Longden had stopped the previous day while examining the statement of Bailiff Hastings, a lawman who in April of 1389 had investigated the disappearance of children in the area of the lake of La Flete.
Long Night in the Gæstholt
Hastings wrote: ‘Once we discovered that Edwyn of Crookham was missing, I stated my intent to return to the woods and find him. This news was not well received – men were already muttering fearfully about returning to the Gæstholt, the name the Saxons had given to the area, a name which means “Ghost Wood” and which was usually only used only by witless peasants and superstitious old women.
‘I bade no man to follow, but a few doughty fellows agreed to accompany me, and with the sky beginning to gloam, we retraced our steps, calling out Edwyn’s name in quiet voices as we went.
‘We had covered by my reckoning a mile before night fell. As the darkness deepened, we noticed that the animals in the woods were greatly agitated: birds flapped restlessly in the crowns of trees; squirrels ran up and down the gnarled trunks, as if in doubt of where best to seek safety; and mice, badgers and foxes ran through the tangled undergrowth.
‘Then we heard a piteous cry of pain. We followed the sound, but its source seemed constantly to change.
‘The hours passed – it was impossible to tell how many, as there was neither moon nor stars in the sky – then we heard another cry, closer this time, and we clearly heard a breathless voice speaking: “No more. I beg thee in Christ’s name, no more”.
‘I cried out Edwyn’s name, but the only answer was the cackling laughter of a woman’s voice, a sound that was ragged, cracked and dry, like the rustle of rats’ feet in straw.’
Hasting’s search continued throughout the entire night to no avail. Then, as the sun rose, he discovered a slick of fresh blood on the dry earth. He and his men followed this and thus found Edwyn of Crookham – and what had been done to him.
The Coffin Oak
Bailiff Hastings stated: ‘Morning brought with it the same grey light as the day before. Following the slicks of pooled blood, we came to a copse of coffin oaks, so named as their wood serves well for the construction of funerary caskets and other types of box and crate.
‘We found Edwyn bound to the bole of one of these oaks, standing upright and tethered tightly at the neck by horizontal outgrowths of tough holly.
‘His shirt and trousers had been removed, and his belly was cut and opened out below the ribs so that his entrails bulged forth. These were bloody, blackened and foetid; and despite the presence of crows and ravens in the trees, there was no sign that the woodland’s carrion feeders had attempted to dine upon the festering tangle.
‘Despite this terrible wound, when we approached Edwyn, his eyes opened and we realised some flicker of bitter life still coursed through his veins.
‘Although the binding twines of holly wrapped around his neck prevented him from any meaningful speech, it was clear from his eyes what he required of us.
‘By the Lord’s grace, there was among us a man named Symon, who had served as a soldier, and he carried with him that long, slim-bladed knife known as the misericorde, which is used upon the fields of battle to deliver the mercy stroke. Gently lifting Edwyn’s left arm, he slid the blade in horizontally between the ribs in such a manner that it pierced the heart, sending Edwyn to the Lord’s light in as swift and painless a manner as was possible.
‘As death occurred, the holly twines dropped away and withered upon the forest floor before our eyes. We collected Edwyn’s body and made haste to leave the woods as quickly as possible.’
The Letter from Broadmoor
As Professor Longden was busy translating this testimony, a letter was brought to him from Dr Conrad, who was still in the process of assessing Gorenhoff’s mental state.
Dear Professor, the letter began, I write to you in great haste as there has been a development of which you must be apprised.
I mentioned when you last visited Broadmoor that I had observed Gorenhoff speaking in the dead of night, using words I believed to be from a Slavic language.
Yesterday, I brought in a friend from my Cambridge days who specialises in Slavic and Baltic languages.
According to my friend’s learned opinion, Gorenhoff is not speaking any modern form of language. Rather, he speaks in a confusing mixture of Lithuanian and Latvian, with vocabulary taken from Slavic and Germanic languages.
‘How could he have learned this?’ I enquired of my friend.
‘I do not know,’ he replied, ‘for this language has not been spoken for more than 500 years.’
The second revelation is even more worrisome. Gorenhoff is not merely babbling in this strange and recondite language – he is conversing, by which I mean he is asking questions and awaiting responses. The only sentence of which my friend could make sense (for we were hidden beyond Gorenhoff’s sight) was this: How much longer must I wait, master?
Then Gorenhoff stopped suddenly and turned, looking towards our hiding spot. ‘My master bids you welcome, gentlemen,’ he said. ‘Step forward into the light, so that he might see you the better.’
When we hesitated, Gorenhoff said, ‘If you do not desire colloquy with the Leper King, then you must return whence you came, lest you incur his wrath’.
As you know, it is my intention to see that Gorenhoff – despite the despicable, inhuman nature of his crimes – receives a just and fair trial. If his actions were the result of a derangement of the senses, then he belongs here in Broadmoor, where he can be studied and assessed so that we may learn how to spot others of his ilk before they, too, commit crimes.
But if I take one whit of this historical hocus pocus to trial, the prosecution will tear my testimony to shreds; and, I fear, my reputation will suffer a similar fate. I confess, I am at a loss as how best to proceed. But there must be some way to prove that Gorenhoff obtained this information via mundane means, even if the truth must be made malleable in some way so that it fits the facts.
Longden was incensed by the letter. Pausing in his work, he wrote a terse response, stating that he “would not under any circumstance seek to make his work malleable” and that should his “historical hocus pocus” be needed in court, he would present it himself.
Then he returned to his documents.
The Black Friar
Within two days of the events in the woodland of La Flete, a letter explaining what had occurred there reached the Bishop of Winchester, who in turn contacted King Richard II.
A week later, the King agreed that action should be taken in this matter with all haste. He ordered an episcopal investigation and sent as his envoy to Winchester a Dominican friar named Bernard de Luis.
Although nearly 60, De Luis was an appropriate choice for two reasons: as a Dominican – or the Black Friars as they are commonly known – he was well educated in both theology and law; and, as a young man, he had witnessed an inquisition in southern France, so knew of the legal practices necessary for a prosecution of heresy.
However, De Luis decided that, rather than try to prosecute the Knights of the Pale Saint for heresy and witchcraft, he would investigate the allegations of child abduction, as that crime placed the knights within reach of secular justice. As he wrote to the Lord Chancellor, ‘that will place the saddle on their backs; then I can apply the spurs. These knights number roughly 30 – send me 100 footmen and a detachment of cavalry and I will make a quick business of their arrest’.
He used local authorities to establish a tribunal, then brought in other Dominican friars to act as assessors (a position between jury and legal advisor in medieval religious inquests). He then began to gather information on precisely who his opponents were.
Once begun, he quickly learned that saddling – let alone applying spurs to – the Knights of the Pale Saint would not be an easy matter. A chronicler of the Teutonic Knights wrote in 1345: ‘It was decided today that these servants of the Sanctus Pallidus will no longer be permitted to participate in tourneys: for such is their martial skill, they rarely lose; and they do not obey the knightly courtesies these tourneys demand. Rather, they fight with the same zeal and ferocity as they do when slaughtering pagans. As such, their opponents often ended maimed or killed.’
As De Luis read more of the knights’ capabilities, he wrote a four-word letter to the Lord Chancellor: ‘Send me more soldiers.’
The next chapter, Crimes and Confessions, will be published on Friday, 19th October.
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