Tom Fletcher and the Angel of Death Excerpt
Prologue – Human Meat
Delilah licked her yellow teeth. The boy had tasted most peculiar, but then she had not tasted human meat before. Perhaps it was always so sweet. The lioness yawned. She would like to have slept now, her stomach full and the flavours still fresh in her mouth, but there was such a commotion outside the bars of her cage, such wild crying. All those staring eyes – and the old man who looked so like the boy she had just eaten was screaming at the fat monk – the one who usually brought in the offal bucket.
“My boy! My little one!” he howled, eyes wild with pain. “My Obadiah!”
“Don’t blame me, Job Pug,” blustered the red faced monk, shaking the old servant roughly from his sleeve. “It’s not my fault. How was I to know the handle would stick? I gave ‘im a job, didn’t I? You’ll get ‘is wages up ‘til today, if that’s what you’re worried about!”
And then there was the woman – that was the worst of it – down on her knees at the cage, rattling the bars, arms stretched through, clawing at the air, not screaming but wailing – a terrible high pitched keening sound that hurt Delilah’s ears.
But what could be amiss? After all, it was just a regular Sunday afternoon at Saint Wilfred’s Abbey, the usual time that fat Brother Benedict fed his animals. The only odd thing about this afternoon was that her prey had tried to get away instead of slopping out of a pail in a quivering mass of cold flesh. Not quite as satisfying as stalking the plains of Africa, but better than staring desolately through the bars of a prison, waiting like a helpless cub to be fed.
Delilah growled nervously, a hunted look in her amber eyes, and then she flung back her broad head as a deep grumbling sound began to rise from the depths of her belly. The anguished onlookers gasped in horror as the rumble grew, rising up through her powerful shoulders, rippling the muscles of her massive neck, erupting at last from her gaping red mouth in a ferocious roar of bewilderment and fear.
Chapter 1 – Fish Hooks and Conkers
Saint Wilfred’s was no ordinary monastery, which was just as well, because Tom Fletcher was no ordinary novice. He certainly never intended to become a monk, as he had told his father tearfully at the headstrong age of seven, when kicking and biting, he had arrived at the great bronze doors of the abbey to be left in the care of the Brothers. But as the youngest of ten children, his desperate parents had little choice. There were simply too many hungry bellies, and Tom owned the hungriest – a surprising fact, since he was as bony a little urchin as you could ever have the ill-luck to meet.
He was also the least obedient child in the family; a detail which his anxious father kept strictly to himself, that frosty winter’s day nearly six years ago, when Tom first pulled the grey woollen habit of a novice over his untidy thatch of chestnut hair and emerged the other end as Brother Thomas.
Hiding his tear stained face from the other boys, Tom pushed his meagre bundle under a lumpy mattress in the draughty novices’ dormitory. It contained everything he possessed in the world – to be more precise: a fish hook, a piece of frayed string, two prize conkers and a spare pair of scratchy underpants (five sizes too big). These he generously donated to plump Herbert Glanville, the son of a local corn merchant, younger by only a few months but twice Tom’s size. Herbert had dried his eyes already and was comforting himself with a greasy mutton pasty on the next hay pallet along. It was a fine beginning to a firm friendship, cemented as the years rolled round by memories of practical jokes played on those monks least likely to see the funny side of life.
Strict monastery rules about eating very little, and doing exactly what you were told, would have proved impossible for a high spirited boy like Tom, but in this he was fortunate. For their leader, Abbot Theodore, was a worldly man – an old soldier, who had lost an eye in the Crusades. And under his easy-going rule, the monks spent many a blissful day brewing ale, carousing in The Frisky Friar Inn, and trading in fake relics with the pilgrims who worshipped at the shrine of Saint Wilfred’s bunion.
But life at the abbey was not always so comfortable. For Abbot Theodore was often far from home, spending much of his time up in London, hobnobbing at the Royal Court, and in his absence, Prior Solomon steered the helm with a firmer hand. And then the monks would say their prayers and sing their psalms and starch the linen altar cloths until the abbot thundered home again on his trusty Arab steed.
Naturally there were those in the town of Saint Agnes next-the-Sea who spoke against the monks and their worldly ways but they’d as well have saved their breath to cool their pottage. For the abbey owned the town, from every stinking hovel, wayside tavern and market stall, to the grandest merchants’ houses that lined the bustling harbour where the River Twist poured into the ocean. And Brother Benedict, the greedy bursar, demanded rents and tithes from the poor without pity, sparing neither a skinny herring nor a heel of cheese for the lepers at the monastery gates.
Enough to stir up bad feeling, you might have thought, since so many depended on the abbey for their work – and then there was the small matter of little Obadiah Pug and the mishap with the bursar’s lioness . . . but that was a year ago and surely such tragedies are best forgotten.
* * *
It was a warm evening in late summer, just before the Lammas Day Fair. The hawthorn was bursting with rusty berries and fat blackbirds squatted in the spiky branches, gorging themselves in readiness for the harsh winter months. The vines were heavy with sweet grapes, the monks were brewing barley beer, and a symphony of blowflies buzzed drowsily over the dung heaps; but all was not as peaceful as it appeared at Saint Wilfred’s Abbey. For Abbot Theodore had met with an accident.
Returning to Saint Agnes from London for the stag hunting, he had fallen from his Arab stallion as he was fording the River Twist. It was only the matter of a shattered kneecap – a trifling injury, you might have thought, for a hardened old soldier – but the Abbot was not in his first youth and the wound had begun to fester. No amount of bleeding and leeching seemed to cool his fever.
And, as if this were not trouble enough for the thirteenth century abbey, young Brother Tom had taken a fancy to the miller’s daughter, and old Brother Ethelwig was about to launch his flying machine from the top of the bell tower.
Text copyright © Sarah Matthias 2006