The first indication that something was amiss was the shying of Johannes’ horse. Horace Dumanoir was far too concerned with his friend’s wellbeing to notice anything else, until he was sure that the man had his mount back under control and was in no danger. Once that was established, they were both able to turn their attention to what had caused the horse such distress and what was making his own gelding uneasy; a dead body, stabbed and bloody, in the middle of the ride which cut through the woods that covered the hill where the old earthworks were.
Johannes was out of his saddle in an instant. He had seen plenty of men hurt and killed on the crusade and they held no terrors for him. He soon recognised from the quantity of blood that the wound had gone straight to the heart or one of the great vessels near it. The victim’s clothes bore great patches of gore, the smell of which was causing the horses still to squirm and be troubled.
“Lead them away, Horace, upwind if you can. There is no more we can do for this poor soul.” Fitzrichard carefully considered the body as his friend found somewhere to tether the mounts. It was a well-dressed young man, his scrip still at his waist and no evidence that his death had been part of a robbery, nor that there had been much of a struggle.
“We should raise the hue and cry. The Sherriff must be told.” Horace had returned and was staring at the body, his face almost as pale as that of the corpse. “If there are bands of cutthroats at work here…”
“If this were the work of robbers then the body would have been stripped. There’s no sign that such a thing was even started. Look at his clothes, Horace, this is good quality cloth and fur, and his scrip is still on him. Call for Kenwyn and send him for help; we should stay here and make sure that no-one comes upon the body by chance and cheats his family of what is due to them.”
“No man would rob a corpse, surely?”
“Men will do many a thing that you could not believe, Horace.”
Dumanoir shook his head and wound his horn. Within a few minutes his groom rode along the path and found them. “My lord?” Kenwyn’s face was a picture of concern at having been called for, and then distress at seeing the body. “What happened?”
“We found this man, already beyond our aid. I would have you ride to Gloucester and fetch the Sheriff, Dinmont, or his deputy; there’s been murder done here.”
Kenwyn considered the sky; it had been darkening this last hour and now was grey and leaden. “I will, my lord, but I do not like the look of those clouds. There’s snow coming later or sooner. At the least it might delay my return, at worst it could make you cut off here. You must find shelter.”
“He’s right, Horace. We can’t stay out here with a dead body, it would be far too cold even if it doesn’t come on to snow. Hywel Dinmont will come here only to find three corpses.” Johannes smiled thoughtfully.
“There is a cot nearby—the grandfather of one of my cousins lives there, just off the main path through the forest.” Kenwyn pointed along the ride.
“Will he mind providing us with hospitality?” Dumanoir was used to providing accommodation for others, but he had ample means. He wouldn’t wish to impose on a cottager so close to Christmas, at a time when food and fuel were often short, even if he could recompense the man handsomely afterwards.
“He is well provided for, my lord. We are a close family who always see to our own, whatever the need. And he is not at home at present. As I rode out to visit my cousin and her mother yesterday he was there, staying a day or two en route to spending the Holy days with his other daughter. He would not begrudge the use of his roof and hearth to someone in need; you could be warm there and keep this poor soul out of the way of the wild beasts.”
Horace shared an exchange of looks with his friend and an unspoken message of agreement passed between them. “Kenwyn, will you show us where this place is? There may be a pallet there we could transport the body on, behind one of the horses. If not, we will have to take it on the back of the gelding. He might be less bothered, especially if he has not far to bear such an unpleasant burden.”
“It can only be a matter of some hundred yards or so, my lord, I know the place well. I am glad now that I suggested we come up here to hunt. Although the sport has been poor, at least we have the satisfaction of helping our fellow man. Load him up on my mare, she is very placid and will go wherever I lead her, bearing whatever burden is required of her. She has a steady temperament and a dead man would not trouble her.”
It seemed a sensible solution all round, especially as the wind had begun to rise and the nip in the air grew sharper. When they reached the little clearing and saw the cottage, small but very sound, they were pleased to be able to find such suitable shelter. Horace tried to dissuade Kenwyn from going straight for the Sherriff—he was sure he had felt the first flake on his face as they had slowly paced along the ride and didn’t want his servant to be at risk. “Or let me go instead. Hugon is much more fleet of foot than your Cerys; she may be excellent at dealing with the smell of blood and death but she would not win a race.”
“I am happy to go, sir. You forget that I was brought up on these hills. I know all the short cuts and the best way to go when the weather draws in. There is much less danger in my going.” Kenwyn leapt onto his mare and turned her head, as if his decisiveness settled things. “I will see you as soon as the weather permits.”
Dumanoir shouted at the rider’s back, to tell the man to remember to put his cloak on against the bitter air, but Fitzrichard didn’t waste time watching the man depart. They had to get a fire started in the hearth—there seemed to be plenty of wood in a long, covered box—and they needed to find a place to put the corpse. Johannes may have had plenty of experience of the horrors of war but even he balked at sharing the cottage with a dead man. The wood store gave them the solution. The body could be placed there safe out of the way of beasts and if anyone tried to disturb it—Johannes had a niggling worry at the back of his mind about the murderer returning—then they would hear the person concerned and be able to defend themselves. The corpse was already beginning to stiffen and Fitzrichard was pleased they’d lain it out straight again after moving it from the horse, so there would be no undue unpleasantness.
Once they had performed their grisly deed Horace set about lighting the fire while his friend tethered their mounts out of the wind and assessed the likely provisions. There was a small well from which he was able to draw wholesome water, enabling him to fill a small bucket for the horses and two ewers for themselves. There was a little winter grass along the edges of the vegetable plot lying behind the cottage and he was happy for the animals to graze there. If it came on to snow they would have to find the beasts a little shelter among the trees.
The men had carried a flask of wine and some bread with them, the soldier’s natural provision against the possibility of hunger en route. Johannes found some salted meat in the household stores, probably the remains of the last season’s pig, which they might be able to broil over the flames. All in all they were not so badly off. Plenty of people would sup less well this night and many would have less pleasant company. For a man to have his lover at his side, who could reasonably ask for more?
As the fire drew and the edge was taken off the air they were able to assess what comforts they could find. There was a narrow pallet for a bed, with a thin mattress, but there was a good quality woollen cover which could give protection to them both and they were warmly dressed anyway, fur cloaks and furlined boots being the order of the day. By the time the meat had cooked, flakes the size of horse chestnuts were falling and Horace has moved the horses into a little stand of trees where he hoped they might not succumb to the cold. Two old rugs that had been on the cottage floor now graced the beasts’ backs as a guard against the weather. He returned to find a supper laid for him on rough wooden trenchers, the wine poured into a single horn cup.
“We’ll have to share, Horace. Perhaps the cottager has taken his finest golden tableware with him to grace his kin’s table while they welcome the Christ child afresh.” Johannes smiled kindly. He knew that the finery he enjoyed at Dumanoir’s manor was far beyond the reach of most of the people he walked this life with.
“If it snows like this all night we’ll have been so grateful for the shelter that I’ll send him a pair of the finest goblets I can rustle up. Truly, dead man or no, I do not think we would have necessarily made our way safely back home before the weather set in. It’s coming from the south and I hope that Kenwyn can ride before it.”
“Then please God he makes it to Hywel safely and is given bed for the night. Perhaps we might see a thaw in the morning and they can reach us then. If not, we will have to make do. And our friend out there won’t be any the worse off for the cold.”
“Who was he, Johannes? We have his scrip safe here, is there any sign in it of his identity?”
Fitzrichard laid the contents on the floor. There was a little money, the man’s seal and some personal items. “He must have had a horse, Horace, and it’s either been taken or fled. He would have his other things in his saddle bags, assuming he was en route somewhere. He might be local, but I can’t place him. I assume his face was not familiar to you?”
Dumanoir shook his head. He picked up the seal and considered it. “This I have seen, though. It belonged to James, a friend of my father’s. He died not long after my own sire, both of them victim to the fever that ravaged us some ten years back. This man must be James’ son to have inherited the insignia.”
“What do you recall of him?”
“Very little. We must have met as boys but I have no lasting impression. All I know is that my father always spoke of Arthur with disapproval in his voice.”
“You were fond of your father, weren’t you? I suspect he never spoke of you with such dissatisfaction.” Johannes reached over and took his friend’s hand.
“He was very proud of me; it broke my heart when he died. He had acted as both father and mother to me since not long after I was born.” Horace was touched with emotion as he remembered with great affection the happy days of his youth. “And above all he valued fealty and steadfast love. James’ son had been flighty, had got a girl into trouble and while the family looked after her well enough, my father could not find it in his heart to trust the man again. He was not welcome in our house like his father was. I believe that he has been living in Wales, as his mother had property there. Wherever he has been he has only recently returned as far as I know; I wonder if he has changed his ways.”
“Perhaps his sins caught up with him, Horace.”
“You believe that he was struck down by God?”
“More likely human vengeance, rather than divine. Some brother or father of a girl he ruined.” Johannes snuggled closer to his friend and they shared another cup of wine. “I shall never understand you, Horace, not if we live to be seventy and spend every moment of the day together. You do not believe in God and yet you think he might have killed this man for his transgressions.”
Dumanoir had to admit the truth of the accusation; he turned the discussion back on his friend. “And you, who say you believe, see only a God of mercy and love. How can you after those years you spent in the East?”
“Because I have met him once or twice on that battlefield. He was there every time a dying man was given succour, especially when it was his enemy who provided the comfort. Men are capable of great evil and great good and I am sure the latter comes from some part within them that connects with a higher power. Oh I am no orator, Horace, I can’t explain. I just know.”
Dumanoir gently kissed his lover’s brow. “You accept as true that there was a child born in a stable who changed the world?”
“I do, my heart. It’s the fact of the stable that makes me believe even more; if it were all a tale he’d have had a more notable birth. And the fact that he fought with swords of love and shields of charity and in the end he gave up his own life for other people. I think it’s that part you find so hard to understand, isn’t it?”
Horace was very quiet for a while, studying the flames as they danced in the hearth. He was aware that Fitzrichard understood him more completely than anyone, perhaps even more than he did himself, but Johannes had no areas of character he wished to keep hidden, no unplumbed depths of which he was frightened. He had spent the last year and more teasing Horace out of himself, winkling the pearl of love and valour from the oyster of reserve and self-pity that had been created after the death of his father. The pearl had proved to be beyond price. “I do not know. I can understand the self-sacrifice, I can understand that very well. Had I gone to the crusades I might have fallen upon the sword of honour and valour, seeking to lose myself in the fight. I have wished it often enough but not had the courage to make it happen.”
“Do you wish it now?”
“You know the answer to that question; need I repeat it?” Horace’s face softened into a smile. He appeared boyish and vulnerable by the light of the fire and Johannes knew he could never love anyone or anything as much as he loved this strange and dour fellow into whose manor he had come by accident some fifteen months back. “The part I find so hard is the idea of loving one’s neighbour as oneself. Very hard to accomplish the former when the latter is beyond one’s capabilities.” He nestled his head onto Fitzrichard’s shoulder, finding all the comfort he needed in contact with the strong frame.
“Perhaps all the love I feel for you will kindle some dormant tinder within your heart and let you love yourself. Or at least like yourself. That would be a start.”
“Perhaps. I believe you have love enough for both of us.” Horace lifted his face and kissed his friend with as much tenderness as he could muster. “I wish we were at home in my bed.”
“Aye. But we are not and we must be aware both of not intruding on our host’s hospitality, especially when he is not aware that he gives it. And on the fact that either Kenwyn or Hywel or both might appear at any moment. A murder is scandalous enough. We do not want to risk disgrace on top.”
Dumanoir smiled, recognising that his lover was not just a seemingly infinite fount of love but of wisdom too. “Then let us drink our wine and try to get some sleep. That snow is not likely to leave off for a while and I for one will want to have all my strength come morning.”
“Shall we take watch and watch? You should sleep first. I feel peculiarly awake and would welcome the chance to think.”
“And what will occupy your mind?”
“This scrip, Horace, and its contents. Perhaps they can tell us some more. I like a riddle; in my father’s house it was custom to entertain the assembled guests with games and word play. When I was but a boy I would sit for hours and try to join in solving the mysteries that were described.”
“What sort of mysteries? Not the sudden and unlawful death of a man on a winter’s day?”
“Sometimes. My paternal uncle had many a tale to relate of crimes that had been committed up in Shrewsbury and an exceptionally clever monk who had outwitted the culprits to bring them to justice. But often it was just silly things, puzzles to amaze and amuse. My favourite was about the man who rode into the Abbey on Lady Day, stayed the whole of two nights then rode out again on Lady Day.”
“That is not possible. Such a thing could not be.”
“Oh it could, Horace. I remember I had solved the problem long before the men of the household and whispered the answer in my father’s ear. He was so proud of me then—he always has been, bastard or not.”
“And will you tell me the solution? It must be a trick. The man stayed a year elsewhere and you did not tell me.” Dumanoir didn’t like to be bested, especially by his lover.
“I will give you until morning then when we break our fast—it will be water from the well and any of that meat that remains—I will tell all. And perhaps I will have some ideas about our dead friend, too. Now sleep, you look done in.”
Johannes laid his lover’s head down on the makeshift pillow he’d fabricated from the saddle bags, and gently stroked his temples. Horace snuggled down like a babe with its mother and didn’t open his eyes again until he awoke with a start, convinced it was his turn to keep watch and that Fitzrichard had let him sleep over.
“Johannes, why didn’t you wake me?”
“Because you’ve only slept two hours, I would guess. The night is barely half through.”
“And you have a twinkle in your eye that I can even see by this firelight. What have you discovered, my faithful hound?”
“This.” Fitzrichard produced a piece of parchment and laid it out where the glow of the fire might illuminate it. “I was looking to see if there was a lamp anywhere—to hope for candles would have been unrealistic—and I found a cache of things on a little shelf. Even in the dim light I could see that this meant something.” The paper carried a depiction of the seal which the dead man had carried.
“Extraordinary. What can it mean?”
“That the man who lives here, Kenwyn’s kin, had some reason to need to know what that seal looked like. I can’t believe he kept it for decoration. Could he have some connection to the dead man’s family?”
“I do not know. Was there anything else that you sniffed out?”
Fitzrichard shook his head. “Nothing out of the everyday. But I have thought on that picture long and hard. I wondered why I would need a copy of someone’s seal and decided it could only be to recognise the man, if I had not met him before. Or to see that his mark was genuine when witnessing the sealing of a document or the certifying of someone’s identity. I can’t imagine that Kenwyn’s cousin’s grandfather would have much occasion for being a witness, so I guess he was given this so that he would know Arthur if he met him. In which case, why?”
“There may be some simpler explanation. Perhaps he took a fancy to the pattern and wished to have a copy?”
“Perhaps. Let us be charitable and assume that is just the working out of coincidence, but I have a feeling in my bones that there is a connection to what happened today, and it unsettles me.” Johannes moved closer to his lover; the fire had been kept well banked up but he sought for comfort, not just warmth. “How well do you know Kenwyn? He had not been with you long before we met, I believe.”
“Aye. His family are simple decent folk. His father served mine and it was long agreed that the son might follow suit once he had returned from Gloucester. He spent some time with Hywel’s men and could have had a place there in the guardhouse but he prefers the country to the city. Cleaner and more honest, he says. Perhaps this violent death will make him realise that there can be evil anywhere.”
“Has he ever spoken of Arthur or his father? Were you ever aware of a special connection between the two families?”
“Not that I know of, except that all families locally seem to know each other in the common run of things. Kenwyn has been a good groom. He is reliable and fiercely loyal and cares very much for his people. He did mention how fond he was of his cousin —I suppose it is the same one that the man who lives here has been visiting, as I believe Kenwyn said she was the only girl among a half dozen boys in the family.”
“How fond is fond, Horace? The fondness for someone he might regard almost as a sister or more than that? The fondness we share?”
“Perhaps the latter. I recall he was asking about what would happen should he take a wife, whether he could stay in my service. I was more than happy to agree to the proposition as he has been a very good servant to me and I would be loathe to lose him.”
“That seems fair. I know that many a man with a household to serve him might elect to have bachelors only, but it seems unfair to expect one’s men to be celibate when the master…” Fitzrichard’s words petered out into a smile, a kiss, and then a great yawn. “I must sleep Horace. A great tiredness has come upon me and it can’t be fought off as easily as you can when you feel amorous and I am too weary. Exercise your mind on this mystery as I sleep and we might have something to give Hywel in the morning, or whenever this snow lets him come here, apart from just a dead body.”
Johannes laid his head on the makeshift pillow, declining the opportunity to use his lover’s legs for the same purpose. It would be unfair to deprive the man of part of the cover, which is what would be entailed if they moved into such a position, and anyway those particular limbs were not a little bony and needed a good feeding up before they would make an ample cushion. Horace’s chest would have been another matter, but it would not answer in these circumstances.