Through the square, round the old stone cross in the Haymarket to the Church Street, down the Vicar’s Close, through the gate midway to the old Saxon church. You could cross Cratheley in three hops from the old boundary stone to the vicarage.
The vicarage was a stone hall, gifted to the vicar twenty-five years ago; nowadays, it was in need of repair. In fact, the whole village looked shabbier than it did only three years before.
I crept through the unlocked vicarage gate, round to the servants’ door and rapped three times. The door opened into a darkened scullery. A girl of about sixteen in a plain brown dress peered out, carrying a brass lantern perforated with crosses.
I tipped my hat, festooned with pilgrim pins and shells from Santiago de Compostela. “Straw for a pilgrim?”
“Oh, you’re that burglar my master said to look out for?” she asked.
“A burglar? No! Not at all, just a humble pilgrim!” I replied, wringing my hat.
“Well, he can’t see you,” she huffed. “He said no one is to disturb him, not even you.”
She made to close the stout wooden door in my face. I shoved a booted foot in the doorway and felt the full weight of the door slam on it, but I didn’t cry out.
“Might I come in and warm myself by your kitchen fires at least? It’s cold out,” I asked, pressing my weight against the door.
“Let me talk to him,” the scullery girl growled. “And take your foot out of the door before I crush it. I won’t warn you again!”
“Be quick about it, this is urgent business!” I cried, shifting my restless body from one foot to the other.
The scullery girl returned a few moments later. “He’ll only be a bit,” she said.
“May I please come in? It’s very cold tonight!” I begged, shivering, and drawing my cloak around me.
She turned up her nose. “You’ll just have to wait, sirrah, you’ve got your cloak on, don’t you? I promise you won’t freeze in an hour.”
The door snapped shut, as if on springs.
I shuffled and paced on the green outside the vicarage for more than an hour. At least the sleet had stopped, and I could see starlight, but now a crisp wind was blowing through my damp cloak.
The scullery maid returned. “Right this way,” she said, gesturing for me to follow.
The scent of bowls and spoons recently washed in tubs of rancid water made my nose wrinkle. How did that vicar not have dysentery day and night? It smelled like the vile soup that formed in baptismal fonts when the holy water stopped being holy after a few of the village brats had pissed in it before being baptized. Is that what he washed his bowls in?
We took the servant’s entrance into a great hall painted bright and lavished with rich tapestries, all of them dusty and covered in monstrous cobwebs.
We hurried up a grand wooden spiral stairway that looked like it had been carved from a single oak to a narrow landing in front of three doors set in stone arches. The scullery girl knocked on the middle door.
Inside we heard a man stir. The door opened into pitch black darkness. The scullery girl stepped aside and shooed me in. “Well, go on!”
I stumbled into the dark room, my eyes adjusting a bit. There was the vicar, dressed in a silk nightgown, sitting at a table sipping a hot beverage that smelled of ginger and honey. A single wick candle lit the table, leaving the corners of the room in deep shadow.
“Terribly sorry,” the vicar said. “My stomach’s been giving me grief all day. This is the calmest it’s been since Evensong.”
“Quite alright, Father,” I said, taking a seat across from him at the table. “So, what may I do for you?”
The vicar set his drink down. “I think you know perfectly well why I’ve called you here.”
“No, Father, I haven’t the faintest idea!” I lied.
“Oh be done with it!” the Vicar grumbled. “What does anyone ever need Winston of Grantham for? I know you’re the one who translated that relic to Shrewsbury, and I’ve decided to forgive you.”
“Forgive me?” I muttered. “I don’t…”
“But on one condition. I need you to bring it back to our church. We’re suffering! No pilgrims means no offerings, and no offerings means no new church. Have you been in that old heap of stones lately? The roof leaks over the vestry and all of my robes have turned moldy, the font cover is falling apart, and mice are drowning in the holy water, and just the other day a piece of the rood screen fell and took a poor altar boy to Heaven. That’ unacceptable, Winston, don’t you agree?”
“Yes, I suppose,” I said, biting my tongue about how much money the Vicar could make if he sold his outrageous house, or didn’t waste his money on the blasphemy of hiring a professional relic thief.
“If you’ll retrieve the relic for me, I’ll pay the cost of your trip,” the Vicar declared. “And I’ll give you a few livres extra, just in case.”
“Of course I’ll take the job,” I said. “I’ve been to Shrewsbury many times…”
“Oh, the relics aren’t in Shrewsbury any more,” he groaned, clutching his gurgling stomach. “They’ve been translated to Malta.”
“Malta? I’m afraid a trip to Malta would be too far out of the way…” I sputtered, sliding out of my chair, and backing toward the door.
“I beg you to reconsider,” said a deep voice from the shadows. Two knights in armor stepped into the dim light, blocking the doorway.
“Ah, Winston, how rude of me! I forgot to introduce you to my nephews, Sir William de Simon and Sir Henry Fitz Robert,” the Vicar rumbled. “I knew you might get cold feet, so I thought these fine boys might convince you otherwise.”
“If you don’t want us to hang you right now, take the money and go to Malta,” Henry growled.
“But those relics wanted to be translated!” I protested. “The Almighty Himself let it happen!”
“Don’t tempt God!” William warned, eyes full of hate as he leveled a rondel dagger at my neck.
The vicar crossed his arms and shook his head. “Sorry, Winston. Malta or the gallows. Make your choice, we haven’t got all night.”
“Alright,” I murmured. “I’ll go to Malta.”
The vicar smiled. “I thought you’d see things my way. William, Henry, give this rascal six livres and a mark in gold and send him on his way.” With that he moaned in agony and ran to the garderobe.
Henry threw a fat clanking sack at me, and he and William dragged me out of the house and tossed me out the gate.
“If you’re not back by next Michaelmas, we’ll find you and cut you down!” William de Simon screamed.
Now there are two ways to get to Malta. If you’re pious, you can take a day’s sail from Dover into Sambre, and from there it’s another forty or fifty day’s walk down the Via Francigena through most of Nord, Savoy, and Lombardy until you get to Venice via Parma or Ostia via Rome. Then you climb inside the stinking holds of a ship for another twenty or thirty days and hope you don’t die in a storm.
If you’re in a hurry, you can climb inside the stinking holds of a ship from Cornwall and travel the whole way there by sea in fifty to seventy days.
I was in a hurry.
There were four other passengers on this ship: a nervous lad from London who was probably trying to escape the gallows; a surly Flemish knight from that lowest order of chivalry who never wash and whose maille is all rusty; a monk from Canterbury on his way to Rome on some church business; and a merchant from Ethiopia on his way home from Iceland.
The scoundrel and the monk sat in their own corners, one brooding in the darkness and the other in deep reflection, his rosary beads twiddling between his delicate fingers.
The knight- Ferrand was his name- Was surly to me and sulked on the deck when he wasn’t down below sleeping.
At least the trader- Tewodros was his name- didn’t sit on his own sulking like the others. He was well-traveled and had his sea legs and had a story about nearly every corner of the world. He traveled far, buying, and selling spices and little gewgaws. Tewodros only rode with us to Cadiz. The scoundrel from London- Dunstan was his name- bolted as soon as his feet touched land in Barcelona.
Ferrand, the smelly knight, became friendly after that and spent many a loud hour boasting of the daring exploits, he and his prick had gotten into. He left at Ostia, gateway to Rome, along with that monk whose name I never did catch.
From Ostia on I was the only passenger, and the holds had gradually filled with cargo until I had only a tiny corner I could squeeze into. Outbound from Palermo, riding low on the waves, we hit rough seas. Waves as tall as houses tossed the ship about, and the wind cried like the spirits of the damned. But, by God’s grace, after sixty long days at sea we arrived in Malta under blue skies.
Malta is an island of pale earth colors, arid and barren, with few trees. It’s a shepherd’s land, and one of the furthest outposts of Christendom. At its heart stands St. Paul’s Cathedral, a great stone church with thick walls and squat columns, very little light, and gold mosaics floor to ceiling like a Roman basilica.
I’d been there once before, on my way to Jerusalem to search for relics. At the time St. Paul’s didn’t have any relics that interested me; I saved my trouble for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
That trip didn’t end well; the Templars didn’t take kindly to anyone carrying a chisel into the Chapel of the Crucifixion, and I was told by three knights to leave without my piece of Calvary, or they’d string me up by my bowels. But, by my honor, I took a stone from right outside the blessed chapel, and it was close enough to Calvary to bring the Countess of Wessex a healthy son.
Pilgrims were lined up outside the door of St. Paul’s, across the square. Every so often the line would break into a crowd, and two large monks would shove the line back into shape. We were front-to-back, scarcely any room to breathe, and held up for more than an hour.
The reliquary was tiny, shaped like a golden egg with one side open and St. George’s toenail- the relic I’d come all this way for- held inside by golden wire. Pilgrims were shoved uncomfortably against each other, each touching a strip of cloth to the toenail only once before being shoved forward by the seething mass behind them. There was no way I was going to take it, but I tried anyway. No luck: the crowd surged forward, and I was jostled back into the sanctuary.
My stomach growled. I hadn’t eaten all day, and the last thing I’d eaten was salted hake washed down with beer that was mostly seawater. Hunger and thirst gnawed at me. But if I hesitated, I could lose the relic again and I’d never be able to return to England. I had nothing to lose by trying again.
Four times. I went around that line four times. By the last time I squeezed into the line, one of the friars who kept the crowds in order gave me a death glare, and I knew they were keeping an eye on me.
I gave up after my last pass by the relic; hunger and exhaustion got the better of me. I hurried away to a nearby tavern for a pint and a couple bites of fish, before trudging back to the cathedral, my room for the night.
There would be no way to get close enough to that relic by night either; pilgrims from across the Christian world were there. I heard conversation in Syriac, Ethiopian, Greek, Italian, High German, and Irish and perhaps fifty other languages besides. While some pilgrims collapsed in exhaustion and slept soundly, others carried on long into the night. One, a dandy from Lombardy, played the lute as his friends diced, in full view of a shrugging friar. Around the altar, too, the pilgrims shunted past long into the night.
I heard two voices in English near the west end of the nave and I sidled up to them. “Ah, countrymen!” I exclaimed. “Is it usually this crowded at night?”
“I don’t know, sir,” said a fellow in a green tunic with a bandage over one eye. “We’ve come to offer a prayer to St. George, but we’re also here for the feast of St. Publius tomorrow.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Saint who?”
“Saint Publius, the governor who welcomed the blessed St. Paul on this very spot,” said a lady in blue next to a man with a knight’s girdle and a bandaged leg. “A prayer at his shrine brought my husband and his squire home from Jerusalem!”
“We’d be on the sea floor if it hadn’t been for him,” the knight added.
“We have enough bread to share, if you like,” the man in green said, tearing off a piece of a loaf and handing me a bit.
I devoured it. “Mmf! Thank you!”
“Where do you come from? I’m Mary Mallory and that’s my husband Sir John de Milford,” the lady in blue said.
“I’m Winston of Grantham. I’m only passing through, on my way to Jerusalem,” I lied.
“First time?” the fellow in green asked.
“Second,” I said.
“You’re very blessed!” Mary said.
“Forgive me, I’d love to talk more but I’ve traveled a long way. I need my rest. Good night,” I said, curling up in a corner.
“Good night, Winston,” said Mary. “God bless.”
The next day was St. Publius’ day, and the crowds of pilgrims were distracted by the old codger’s rusty old cloak pin. I decided to make my move.
Sneaking round the shrine of St. George, I had my hand on the small egg-shaped reliquary and nearly had it stuffed inside my tunic when a large, heavy hand landed on my shoulder.
It was the muscled friar who had glared at me the day before. “I thought I recognized you!” he bellowed; his brown eyes bloodshot with hate.
“Unhand me!” I yowled, trying to pull away. “I’ve been sent by the Lord to translate the relic of the blessed Saint George back to the Parish Church of St. George at Cratheley where it belongs!”
“We’ll see what the bishop has to say about that!” the friar huffed, dragging me by the arm to a narrow door at the corner of the transcept, up a set of spiral stairs, and into a small office with a writing desk and books chained to shelves.
An old man with gray eyebrows that swept in wild arcs like the wings of seagulls sat at the desk. He had a face like a scrotum and an ugly little mouth like a dog’s anus.
“What is it Andreas?” he asked in clear English.
“This man is a thief!” Andreas declared. “He tried to steal the relics of St. George!”
“How far did he get?” the bishop asked.
“He nearly had it up his sleeve, Your Grace,” Andreas said.
“I’ve come to translate these relics!” I protested, twisting away from Andreas. “God Himself told me in a dream to come here!”
The bishop pushed his spectacles up his nose and looked me over. “Let’s assume you’re telling the truth then, erm…”
“Winston, Your Grace. Winston of Grantham.”
“Winston, if the Lord has sent you, I expect a miracle to prove it. Let’s see if you can survive in this chapel on nothing but communion host for forty days. No bread and no water. If you try to leave the sanctuary or if we catch even a crumb of food in your mouth, we’ll let the magistrates deal with you.”
That was bleak. I’d heard of celibate nuns who could live for forty days on only the communion host.
I was neither celibate nor a nun.
But, I reminded myself, at least this way I had time to think of a way out.
I swallowed my fear, put on a look of pious indifference, and made the cross over myself. “Very well. God will see me innocent!” I declared.
“If he eats anything but the Host, take him to the magistrates and make sure he hangs,” the bishop said. “Take him back to the sanctuary. Forty days! No less!”
My hunger was the worst in the first three days. Brother Andreas would tell the pilgrims “You see that sad vagabond there? He’s trying to live for forty days on nothing but the blessed host, but he wants to make it as hard as possible. Go, tempt him. Tempt him like St. Anthony!”
And of course they did, waving bread and biscuits and nuts and smoked fish in my face while Brother Andreas smirked at me and held the cords of his robes like a hangman’s noose. That prick!
But after three days it became no chore to refuse food. My appetite was gone. My stomach had gone from a wineskin to a coin purse in size.
It was thirst that nearly drove me mad. The communion wafers stuck to my tongue after a while and became hard to swallow even with a bit of wine. I began to feel weak too, my vision blurring and my muscles cramping. So it was that on the third day, by a puddle in a far corner of the nave, I collapsed, fighting the urge not to take the drink.
I awakened after an hour or two, the left side of my tunic soaked in rancid water. I dragged myself away into a dark corner, absolutely stung. Then I had a strange thought.
Taking my sleeve in my mouth, I sucked a bit of water from it. It tasted dreadful, but it was at least cool and above all, wet. Something I’d been missing. Something my body begged for. I gazed around at the sanctuary, expecting to see a group of priests charging in to hand me over to Pilate. No one saw me. Everyone was gathered near the altar and I, over by the little St. Ann shrine at the far end of the nave, was left to soak up the ever-shrinking puddle.
But after five more days of clinging to life from what I could soak up in my tunic, the eighth day of my fast, the puddle had run dry. Shafts of bright sunlight through the clerestory windows warmed the nave during the day and the nights were warm and starry. The dry season had begun.
I was weak too. Communion thrice a day- the most I was allowed- was only enough to remind me of food but not enough to sustain me. I could barely stand any more; I moved through the Cathedral on my hands and knees. The priests, of course, liked this. I heard them mumble about the remarkable humility this relic thief displayed, about how I didn’t deserve to be treated this way.
If any of that talk reached the bishop’s ears, he wasn’t moved. The few times I saw his ugly old scrotum face he stared me down, daring me to complain, daring me to plead for mercies he’d never show me, daring me to curse him so he could catch a sniffle and accuse me of witchcraft. I refused to give him that satisfaction and began to believe I had done nothing wrong. God had seen me through a week and a day, and I had maybe three days’ worth of life left in me before I die of thirst. Three days to figure out how I would survive.
By the tenth day, the temperature in the nave had become unbearably hot, and I was at my wit’s end. Crawling forward during the mass to receive the communion I gave a mighty cry.
“Oh Lord!” I pleaded, my voice like broken glass. “Deliver me from my tormentors! Spare my life and let me go home!” I collapsed, panting before the rood as darkness crept over me.
I woke to a cold sponge against my mouth, droplets of sweet wine cut with vinegar trickling past my lips.
I sat bolt upright, pushing away the monk who held the sponge. “No! No!” I protested. “I’m fasting!”
The monk shook his head. “Son, the Bishop has died.”
My heart sank. “I’m… sorry to hear it,” I mumbled.
“No, it’s quite alright,” the monk murmured. “Old scrotum-face had it coming a long time.”
“So I can eat and drink?” I asked.
“You’ve proved your intentions were holy and not selfish,” the monk said. “Your fast is over.”
“I’ll believe it when I hear from the priests themselves,” I grumbled. “Brother Andreas especially. He wanted to see me hang!”
The monk gave a nod. “Do you want me to fetch Father Andreas? I can if you like,” he offered.
Father Andreas? They promoted that brute?
“Yes, bring him to me,” I said. “I want to hear it from his mouth. All of it!”
When Andreas came a few minutes later, his back was bent and his steps short and uncertain. “I’m so sorry for how we treated you. The Lord heard your prayer and delivered justice upon the Bishop. I’ll bring you any food or drink you want. Name it, I’ll have it for you!”
At that point I could have asked for anything really. I wanted so badly to devour an entire roast in three bites and slop up the grease with my tongue like a wild animal right in front of the brothers while they sipped their cold pottage.
No. That would never do. I had a point to prove.
I sat up and held my hands together as if in prayer, bowing my head. “Bring me only the body and the blood of Christ,” I said, making the sign of the cross over myself. “And don’t be stingy with the blood.”
“Iesu Maria!” Andreas mumbled, crossing himself. “Right away, My Son.”
Minutes later, in marched a deacon and two altar boys followed by two monks who swung large censers. They knelt before me, the deacon presenting me with the communion wafer and dipping it in a very large chalice. “Corpus et sanguis domini nostri Iesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam, amen,” he chanted, making the cross over me before putting the chalice to my lips.
Normally, only the priest may drink from the chalice. It was a sacred object for the preparation of hosts. To let an ordinary ruffian like me drink from the chalice was unthinkable; that honor was reserved for living saints!
That was when I noticed every eye in the infirmary was on me. Even a few curious pilgrims had followed along with the procession and were clutching their beads in suspense.
After I’d drunk maybe a half pint of watery wine from the chalice, I felt some of my strength return. I sat up on the edge of the cot and trudged back to the chapel on shaky feet. Pilgrims strung along behind me, touching stinking rags to my body, trying to soak up some of my saintliness.
By the time I arrived at the altar, I could barely stand. I fell- the second time I’d fallen before the altar- and pulled myself to my feet, raising my hand to the crowd for silence.
“Listen,” I called to them, my voice still a bit hoarse but stronger than it was a few hours before, “The Lord has said to me, that I shall neither eat nor drink a single thing except for the communion host until this relic of St. George is translated back to Cratheley, in England, where it once lay.”
The crowd murmured. Andreas stepped forward. “We can’t do that,” he said. “As chapel custodian I forbid it!”
A wave of dizziness came over me. I collapsed again before the reliquary.
“He’s fallen three times, like Christ himself!” someone cried. The crowd knelt and crossed themselves before me.
“Kyrie Eleison!” Andreas sobbed, kissing the hem of my penitent’s robes and bawling. “Go! God be with you, son!”
“Bring me the relic,” I said, sitting up. “And give me something to eat when I’ve left.”
The pilgrims dug in their bags for loaves, fruit, nuts, cheese, flasks of wine, and every single kind of biscuit and cake there is and piled them next to me.
“Does anybody have a spare sack?” I asked. About forty goat hair sacks landed at my feet. The monk from the infirmary helped me gather up all the food.
Brother Andreas fetched the small, gilded egg of the inner reliquary and placed it in my hands. “Here, Son. If you can walk out of the church without stumbling a fourth time, you’re free.”
He had me. I was barely able to stand on my own two feet, let alone walk fifty feet or so with a heavy sack full of food.
I threw the sack over my shoulder and, with the reliquary clutched in my right hand, I staggered toward the door. The crowd cleared a path for me. Every step was a struggle. But I made it.
As I left the cathedral, I saw the square outside the church, now in twilight, full of pilgrims bearing candles, singing, and praying. They bowed before me as I trudged through the square, some in tears of ecstasy.
I lost the crowd entirely somewhere near the wharf and collapsed a fourth time, safely out of view. I put the reliquary in a spare sack and slumped against a wall in an out-of-the-way corner, gnawing on a wedge of cheese.
I did it.
I did it!
Through the square, round the old stone cross in the Haymarket to the Church Street, down the Vicar’s Close, through the gate midway to the old Saxon church. I walked the same familiar route across Cratheley in triumph, the blessed toenail in hand.
This time the vicarage gate was locked. I hoisted myself to the top of the gate. “Hullo!” I called.
Silence. Again, I called, “Hullo!” at the top of my lungs.
I heard the scullery door open. The vicar’s scullery maid came round the corner, carrying her lantern. “Who is it?” she called.
“It’s me, Winston,” I called. “I have something very important for your master!”
“One moment, one moment!” she called, scurrying back to the house.
Out came the vicar’s nephews a few minutes later, though one of them- was it Henry?- wasn’t wearing armor any more. He’d swapped his maille for a long modest tunic, dark-colored hose, rounded shoes, and a large, gilded crucifix about his neck.
“Where’s the Vicar?” I demanded.
“Speaking,” Henry grumbled.
“But your uncle…?” I began.
“He’s with the saints now,” Henry said. “Dysentery did for him three months ago.”
“Dreadfully sorry to hear it. But I did bring the relic and I believe we’ve still got several days until Michaelmas.” I opened my hand, displaying the gilded egg.
“We don’t need it any more,” the young vicar sneered. “It wasn’t even a genuine relic, my uncle got it off a corpse the dogs dug up in the churchyard! We’ve got something much better now.”
“What could possibly be better than this?” I demanded, waving the reliquary in his face.
“Come along, I’ll show you,” the vicar said, unlocking the gate and leading me toward the church a short distance away. The old Saxon church had a new lead roof on it and had been expanded with a beautiful Gothic cloister.
Henry unlocked the heavy old oak door and took the candle from his lantern, lighting candles all around the sanctuary until the place glowed bright enough to see. Near the altar was an enameled box of gilded brass lined inside with quilted white silk.
An object that looked like a shriveled, blackened, rolled-up bit of sausage casing rested on the fabric. Below this miserable object a scribe in the time of Charlemagne had painted, in stark black letters on a plain white wooden plaque, “Præputii S. Barnabe.”
The foreskin of St. Barnabas.
“Oh,” I whispered. “So, I see.”
“No hard feelings,” said Henry, handing me a gold noble. “Now, take that dirty old toenail back to Shrewsbury and never show your face here again.”
What Rose LaCroix lacks in recognition, she makes up for in versatility and staying power. Her first published novel, "Basecraft Cirrostratus," has been in print for almost 11 years. She writes both fiction and nonfiction, speculative and historical. Some of her medieval history research has been published on Britannica.