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Exeter Burning

The towers of the cathedral cast long shadows across the courtyard as Robert, Sheriff of Exeter, rode through the city gates. The sky was a mixture of gold and red as the sun faded in the west. Soldiers at the gate were preparing to close up for the evening, and they nodded a courtesy as the sheriff passed. Robert dismounted and handed his horse over to a groomsman and then walked across the yard towards the cathedral. The doors to the cathedral were open, and he could hear the psalms of Vespers rising on the wind.

Robert climbed the stone steps to the cathedral porch, stopping for a moment to admire the masonry: a beautiful blend of saints and angels, gargoyles and demons, and flowers and vines carved into the stone. God has truly blessed the hands that built this church, Robert thought, and then he entered.

The light of day faded behind him as he stepped inside to the flickering of orange flames pulsing off the walls. The nave was wide with rows of benches and chairs down the middle and along either side, and near the altar was the choir, where the brothers stood singing praises to God. Such beauty in the human voice. Robert moved along the columns of one of the side aisles towards the north transept. The stained glass windows shone with the colors of sunset, and the light filtering through the panes bathed the floor in streaks of gold and red and blue. The sheriff approached the crossing and entered the north transept, and set into the wall was a door that opened onto a stairwell leading to the undercroft. He went through the door and down the steps, his boots clicking on the stones as he descended.

He came to a room with rounded stone columns rising to a vaulted ceiling painted with blue and flecked with stars, and at the far end of the room was another altar, and kneeling before it was Bishop William. The bishop of Exeter was dressed in a robe of fine purple wool threaded with gold that flowed around his shoulders and spread out on the floor behind.

The bishop did not seem to hear Robert enter, and Robert, not wanting to disturb him, allowed him to finish praying. After a short time, William rose, made the sign of the cross, and turned to face the sheriff.

“The Church needs your help,” the bishop said. His skin hung beneath his eyes and hard lines crossed his brow.

“Anything for the Church, my Lord Bishop,” Robert said.

“Someone has defaced the effigy of our beloved Saint Bernard and stolen the golden cross that graced his tomb. That is why I have called you here.”

“To find the thief,” Robert said.

“And I have already prayed for your success.”

Robert was hoping for more than just prayers. “Do you have any idea who could have done this?”

“I do.” William smoothed the lines in his robe. “But first let me take you to St. Bernard.”

Bishop William led the sheriff back up the staircase and across the nave to one of the southern chapels. Vespers was over, and the dean, precentor, chancellor and other clergymen were filing out through the main doors. Bishop William ducked into the chapel off the aisle, and Robert followed.

A stone effigy, carved in the likeness of the late St. Bernard, sat in the center of the room. An inscription was chiseled on the front of his tomb: Here lies St. Bernard of Leicester, a martyr of our Lord Jesus Christ. Another inscription was scrawled near it: May he rot in Hell.

“You see the defamation?” the bishop asked.

“Clearly,” Robert answered. “And where was the golden cross?”

William pointed to an empty stand resting at the front of the tomb. “It is an abomination to rob the Church. An act of heresy. Pilgrims who journey here expect blessings from St. Bernard. Now, instead of blessings, they will be greeted by words from the devil. This will create a great stir among the people, and they will go elsewhere. They will say demons of Satan have come to torment and punish the Church of Exeter for its sins.”

“Then I will find the man who has done this, and he will be hanged for his crime,” Robert said. Though if I receive only prayers I may never find the thief at all.

“Oh, I do not think that will do.”

“Why is that?”

The bishop came closer and whispered in Robert’s ear. “This man must be turned over to the church and tried in an ecclesiastical court.”

“A man of the cloth did this?”

“I believe so, yes.”

“You said you might know who it is?”

William grabbed the sheriff by the arm and pulled him into a corner where no one passing down the nave might see them.

“I believe it to be Brother Thomas.”

“The dean?”

William hushed Robert. “Yes. He aspires to be bishop after me if I am elected to the see of Canterbury as Archbishop.”

“And will he be approved?”

The bishop released his arm. “Never. He is not trusted. Not by other priests or bishops or the cardinals or even the Pope. Especially not by me. It’s believed Frederick will take my place.”

“The Abbot of Abingdon? He is a German, is he not?”

“All the more reason for Thomas to oppose him and the Church.”

“So I will plan on staying in Exeter until we have apprehended him. Two weeks. A month. Whatever you need.” Might be I’ll arrest him in just a few days if I receive the right mix of prayers and blessings. Especially blessings. Beautiful golden blessings, the same gold as that missing cross.

Robert was staring at the stand where the golden cross had been when the bishop grabbed him by the arm again. “Do not plan on staying long,” William said. “I need our man captured tonight.”

“One night? I cannot gather enough evidence against him in one night. More time will be needed.”

“We do not have more time. Everyone will be arriving for King Edward’s visit starting tomorrow, and no doubt many will want to visit the saint’s shrine, and if we do not have a culprit in chains, they will not bring their prayers and petitions before God, and how can the people receive penance if not through his Church?”

It seemed the bishop was thinking about the same golden blessings. “I will do all I can,” Robert said and started to walk away.

William squeezed his arm more tightly. “I need not remind you that you have a duty to the people and to the Church to see that justice is done.”

“And what if I need reminding? What will you give me to remember?” More prayers? Or golden blessings? Which do you think I want?

“One hundred shillings.” The bishop handed the sheriff a leather purse tied with a string of hemp. “Fifty now, and fifty more when you have captured him.”

That was more like it. Robert took the purse and slipped it inside his cloak. “I thank you, my Lord Bishop. But I can’t just arrest this man. I must have proof. We need to catch him in the act of stealing or find the cross among his possessions.

“You have uncovered part of my plan already. During Matins, you will search his room for the cross. If you find it, we will have our proof.”

“And if I do not find it?”

“Then other arrangements will have to be made.” The bishop went over to the doorway and looked out into the nave and then came back inside the chapel and pulled something else from his robe. The sheriff saw it was a golden cross.

“Is that it?” the sheriff asked.

“No, of course not. But it will serve our purpose if in fact the evidence is not there.” The bishop held out the cross to Robert.

“I can’t take that. My obligation is to uphold justice, not create a false sense of it.”

“You must also remember your obligation to the Church, which holds your soul in its care. By God and our Holy Father in Rome, I have been granted powers over this land, and I have a duty to God to see my people are safe. Thievery will not be tolerated on my lands and certainly not in my own church.”

Robert took the cross from the bishop’s hands and admired it. The gold shimmered crimson in the light shining through the rose tinted window.

“It would be most unfortunate for you,” the sheriff said, “if the dean is innocent and the curia in Rome discovered your method of administering justice. They might find a wiser man to take the seat of Archbishop of Canterbury.” Robert turned the cross in his hands and ran his fingers over its golden surface.

The bishop took another purse from his robe and gave it to Robert. “He is guilty. You can be sure of it.”

Robert eyed the purse and cross and then slipped them both inside his cloak. God be good. “I will have him in chains before daybreak. You have nothing to worry about, my Lord Bishop. Your church and your seat at Canterbury will be protected.”

Robert nodded to the bishop and left the chapel. His boots clicked on the flagstones as he walked down the nave and exited through the main doors.

The sheriff waited in the stables across the yard from the cathedral. It was spring time, but the wind was cool, and Robert built a fire near the stable door and watched the church. Around midnight, the clergymen left the dormitory and crossed the yard. Thomas led them, and he stood on the porch as the other brothers filed inside, and when the last man entered, Thomas scanned the courtyard, his gaze pausing on the stables, and then he followed his brothers inside and closed the doors. Sheriff Robert doused the fire with sand and then crossed the grounds to the dormitory. He hurried to the dean’s quarters and slipped inside.

The room was dark. The moon cast a bluish haze across the paned windows, and so Robert took an oil lamp from the wall and lit it. The small cell flickered to life with flame and shadows. Robert moved to the desk and rummaged through stacks of parchments, and he checked inside and beneath the dean’s straw mattress, but he couldn’t find the cross. He took out the cross the bishop had given him, and he stared at it. Its golden surface glowed a deep red in the firelight, and he knew if he helped convict an innocent man, the dean’s blood would be on his hands, and he would surely burn in Hell. He started to slip the cross back in his cloak, but then he felt the weight of the purses on his belt, and instead, he placed the cross inside the folds of one of Thomas’s robes. It was a sin to handle a clergyman’s garment, but an even greater sin to accuse an innocent man of God of a crime, and so Robert prayed to God for forgiveness, if in fact the bishop was wrong.

He wondered if God even heard him, for sin could only be absolved through a priest, and it was a man of God that Robert was about to condemn. If Thomas was innocent, perhaps the bishop could grant him absolution. There was a small comfort in that thought, and Robert blew out the lamp, placed it on the wall and left the dean’s chambers.

He stepped back out into the cool night. A cloud had slid across the moon, and he could only see the faint outlines of figures moving towards the dormitory. Matins was over, and the clergymen were returning to their chambers. The sheriff hid behind a wall buttressing the cathedral and waited for the men to pass. They seemed to glide over the ground, their sleeves and hoods ruffling in the wind. Robert looked for Thomas but did not see him. The last of the men entered the dormitory, and still Robert did not see the dean. He must still be inside. The bishop must be talking with him … delaying him.

Robert waited for a half hour in the shadows of the cathedral, and when Thomas still did not appear, the sheriff decided to enter the church.

Inside, the faint light of the moon fell in silver streaks across the floor. Robert fumbled his way along the walls to the north transept where the bishop’s quarters were located. The wind strained against the vaulted ceiling and high windows, and it groaned and wailed among the crevices in the stone. It was as if the ghosts of the underworld had come to torment the church at Exeter. In the darkness, Robert saw the dim flame of candlelight burning through the blackness. The bishop’s cell. Robert proceeded to the far end of the corridor and stopped just outside the doorway.

The pale light of the flame pulsed and washed over the threshold and into the hallway. Robert listened. He heard nothing. He expected to hear William talking with the dean, and when he heard silence, he grabbed the hilt of his sword and edged into the room. It was empty. He did not see the bishop or the dean, and he was about to leave the room when something sticking out from behind the bishop’s desk caught his eye.

It was a boot … a black leather boot … the bishop’s boot. Robert moved around the desk and then he saw the purple robe and finally the entire body. Holy Mother.

Bishop William lay face down on the floor with blood puddling beneath his head. The sheriff bent down to inspect the body and then he thought he heard footsteps shuffling down the hallway away from the room. Robert pulled his sword from its scabbard, the steel ringing on leather, and he rushed out into the darkened corridor. He heard the clicking of feet on stone fading down the hallway, and he sprinted in that direction. He reached the main entrance of the cathedral, and he heard the ghosts of the church moaning once more, and he listened for footsteps above the howling wind, and he heard faintly the scuffing of feet on stairs. He wound his way up the staircase and came out high above the floor near one of the towers. Here, the stone pillars touched the ribs and vaults of the ceiling, and a wooden walkway ran along the edges of the walls. Robert saw the silhouette of someone moving along the left side of the walkway.

“Stop!” William shouted.

The man continued to move along the walkway. Robert hurried after him and shouted again for him to stop. This time, the man stopped and slowly turned around. The man had the hood of his cloak pulled over his head. He held something in his hand, but Robert could not tell what it was through the black and gray haze. Robert raised his sword and started towards the man, and the man raised whatever he was holding. The sheriff thought it must have been a sword, but then he saw a spark and the object burst into flames. Robert could see the man’s face beneath the hood, and he saw that it was Thomas.

“What have you done?” Robert said.

The dean flicked the torch through the air, and golden sparks speckled in the darkness.

“Bishop William got what he deserved,” Thomas said. “He was not fit to hold his office.”

“So you killed him?”

“God used me as an instrument to carry out His will. Bishop William was guilty of one of the seven mortal sins. He did not care about people’s souls. He only cared for his precious cross and the precious coin the people brought to his church.”

“And you are guilty of murder.”

“Can one truly be guilty if he does what the Father wills? Was David guilty when he slew Goliath, or Sampson when he crushed the Philistines?”

“I am not God, and by law I am to arrest you, and you will be tried before a court.” Robert started towards the dean.

“God will judge you just as he judged the bishop.” Thomas took the torch and laid it against the wooden railing of the walk until it caught fire. The fire spread quickly to the floor, and Robert dared not step any closer, for the planks were cracking under the heat. Robert moved down the walkway and crossed in front of the tower to the opposite side. He ran down the right wall, his boots thumping against the wood, and he circled around to cut off Thomas from reaching the staircase. The dean moved slowly along the walkway touching the ribs with fire, and the flames spread from the walls to the ceiling, so that soon the whole roof was ablaze. Robert made it to the stairwell before Thomas, and he blocked the exit. Thomas stood staring at him, his eyes glowing with fire, and the walkway behind him was black with smoke, and fragments of wood began falling to the floor. Robert heard a crumbling, and the earth shook, and a section of the vault caved in and crashed through the planks and the stones shattered on the floor far below. Thomas turned to look at the gaping hole, but the flames and smoke were so thick he could go nowhere but forward.

“It’s over!” Robert said.

The dean smiled and swept the torch across the railings and floor in front of him, and the fire leapt up in a wall of crimson flame that Robert could not pass.

“May the Lord damn your soul to Hell!” the dean said over the roaring flames.

Robert could do nothing now. The dean had sealed his own fate. Robert took one last look at him and then fled down the stairwell. He reached the bottom of the stairs and ran down the nave. The entire vault above him was engulfed in orange and red flames, and chunks of stone began breaking off from the roof and smashing on the floor around him. He paused at the main doors, and then he thought about William, and not wanting the bishop’s body to be consumed in the flames, Robert ran to the north transept. He carried William in his arms down the hallway and out the main doors and laid him on the grass in the yard. The clergymen came streaming from the dormitory, and soon other townsfolk began to join them on the lawn. Black smoke billowed from the roof until the vault finally caved in and golden flames leapt into the night air.

“We must do something!” one of the brothers shouted.

But they all knew there was nothing that could be done, and so they watched as the house of God melted away. All the perfectly chiseled stonework and decorative glass and holy relics were lost to the flames. The sheriff crossed his chest and whispered a prayer to God, for the devil had come to Exeter, and he hoped the devil’s work had died in the fire with Thomas.