As my father was away fighting for King Ethelred (whom men call Unready, or of evil council), it was my brother, Oslac, who took charge the next day when the foul murder was discovered. The people look to the son of their thegn for leadership – and Oslac is seventeen years of age, a man in the eyes of most, though I would that my brother were of stronger character. I, his sister Ymma, am wiser in the ways of men.
‘The Danes came among us in the night,’ Father Ordulf announced. His voice was unsteady and I thought him close to tears. ‘They killed a brother of the Abbey who arrived in our village after darkness. They killed him in the crypt while he was praying before the relic of our saint.’
‘The Danes arrived, killed the unfortunate brother and then departed leaving the rest of us unharmed?’ I heard myself saying in disbelief. ‘Did they steal from the church?’
The priest turned towards me and regarded me with sad brown eyes. I knew Father Ordulf well. He had taught me to read and write and this I did now as well as any holy brother. ‘I speak the truth, Lady Ymma. They departed without harming the village for which I thank God. But they stole from our church.’
‘What did they take?’ I asked. I glanced at my brother Oslac who was staring at me resentfully. But someone had to ask the questions and I knew that he was not man enough to do the task himself.
Father Ordulf shook his head, close to tears. ‘They took fourteen shillings in alms and tithes and a silver chalice.’ He looked at me nervously. I knew there was something else. ‘Andf our holy relic … St Wulfgar’s finger.’
An anthology of historical mysteries that I first read years ago and re-read during the holiday. I had forgotten many of the stories and it was as if I was reading them for the first time, while the ones I did remember (like The Fury of the Northmen by Kate Ellis – see the extract above) I enjoyed all over again.
The anthology focuses entirely on murder, and the stories were chosen by Maxim Jakubowski – an expert if ever there was one.
In my favourite Medieval Period, the tales range from Peter Tremayne’s Who Stole the Fish? (Ireland, AD 664), in which Sister Fidelma investigates the disappearance of a large salmon from the monastery kitchen (along with the brother who was cooking it, but no one seems to care about him), to Paul Docherty’s Id Quod Clarum (Oxford, 1441), in which the obnoxious professor of theology collapses and dies of henbane or belladonna poisoning while delivering a lecture.
Of the stories set between these two dates, apart from Kate Ellis’ The Fury of the Northmen (South coast of Devon, Britain, AD 997) where we see a young woman take the lead in unearthing the true facts of a killing in a male-dominated Saxon village, there is Susanna Gregory’s The Trebuchet Murder (Cambridge, 1380) in which yet another obnoxious professor of theology is the victim. (I am beginning to wonder whether it is characteristic of medieval mystery writers that they once studied theology and fantasise about murdering the professor? )
Then there is a longer story, Raven Feeder by Manda Scott (Orkney/Norway, AD 999), which I particularly liked. Its theme is the clash between the old religion of Odin, Thor and Freya, and the religion of the White Christ which was being imposed on all and sundry by the brutal Olaf Trygvason, King of Norway. Excellently imagined and written.
Finally, I must draw attention to two wonderful stories which are set around 3000 years ago. First. Amy Myers’ Who Killed Dido? (Carthage, 10th Century BC) – the culprit is one of the gods, and the investigator Aphrodite, the goddess of love herself! Then there is Investigating the Silvius Boys by Lindsey Davis (of Falco fame), in which the victim is Remus and the “perp” his brother Romulus; brother against brother – “one of the oldest crimes in the world,” as she says herself on the first page of the story. (I’m not giving anything away.)
A great collection.