Hugh Corbett 11 - The Demon Archer (10 page)

BOOK: Hugh Corbett 11 - The Demon Archer
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‘There! There!’ he crooned. ‘Unlucky Baldock is sorry. So, sir.’ He held the bridle of Ranulf’s horse, the cast in his right eye more pronounced. ‘Now you know why they call me Unlucky Baldock. Cross-eyed, crossed in luck and crossed in love!’
‘Ranulf!’ Corbett was standing at the edge of the glade looking impatiently across at him.
His manservant threw Baldock another penny before he dismounted and led both horses across the dell.
‘What is the matter?’ Corbett demanded. ‘What was that terrible noise?’
Ranulf hid a smirk. ‘Master, I’ll tell you later. We were discussing poor Maltote and I may have found a replacement.’
Corbett looked askance at him as he grasped the reins of his horse and walked into the trees.
‘If I remember rightly, the priory must be this way. So, if we get lost, Ranulf, it will be my fault.’
Ranulf quietly cursed and hung back. He hated the forest, the noises he couldn’t identify, the shapes and shadowy forms which seemed to move between the trees. Corbett walked ahead of him, lost in his own thoughts. The previous evening, the tavern master of the Devil-in-the-Woods had drawn a crude map. Corbett believed he was going in the right direction, towards a path that would widen into a trackway which would take him up to the priory.
Ranulf, behind him, thought about Maltote and Baldock. Every so often he would stop and peer between the trees, recalling the warnings about the creatures who lurked here: the cutthroats who would take a man’s life simply for the boots he wore. Ranulf’s hand went to his dagger. As he was about to protest the treeline suddenly broke, the ground dipped and he saw the trackway winding through the forest. Corbett led his horse down and mounted. Ranulf followed suit and drew alongside his master.
‘We are not wandering around, are we?’ he demanded. ‘Going from one place to another?’
Corbett glanced up at the fleecy white clouds. The sky was light blue and the sun strengthening. He breathed in the sweet smell of the forest, the damp ferns, that warm humid smell from trees soaked with rain.
‘At first this will be easy,’ he predicted. ‘We will be allowed to go where we wish. However, this is a pretty mess of pottage and the deeper we dig our spoons, the more dangerous it will become. Lord Henry was murdered and, somehow or other, I think that unmarked corpse has something to do with this business. That young woman was killed, stripped and, if the reports are true, secretly buried before someone dug her up and placed her corpse outside the priory gates. Outlaws don’t do that.’ He paused, gathering the reins in his hands. ‘We have the Fitzalans, two brothers and a half-sister. A great deal of antipathy, even hatred, swirled between them. We have this strange outlaw the Owlman with his secret threats. We also have, standing in the shadows, Jocasta and her daughter, Verlian, Brother Cosmas, even Odo the hermit: that’s one game. Then we have the King and what he intends. Nor must we forget the Prince of Wales, God knows what mischief he’s plotting! And last, but not least, our beloved brother in Christ, Seigneur Amaury de Craon. Now each group could be separate but, I suspect, the more we stir the pot, Ranulf, the more they’ll mix together. So.’ He smiled. ‘In a while it might be very dangerous to ride around Ashdown Forest. I won’t go to them. I’m the King’s commissioner, I’ll make them come to me.’
Ranulf was about to ask how when an arrow whirred in front of him and struck the ground, embedding itself deep in the trackway. Ranulf immediately dismounted, unhitching the small arbalest he carried on his saddle horn. Again came a whir and an arrow dug into the trackway behind him. Corbett, too, dismounted, using his horse as a shield.
‘To the right!’ Ranulf shouted.
And, as if in answer, two more shafts whistled above their heads, striking the trees behind them.
Chapter 5
Corbett and Ranulf hid behind their horses which whinnied and shook their heads as they caught their agitation.
‘How many archers, Ranulf?’
‘Just the one, master. I don’t think he intends to kill us. He’s loosed at least four shafts, one would have found its target.’
Corbett peered over the saddle, scrutinising the trees, but it was futile. The forest edge could have concealed an army and he would have been none the wiser. At last the horses became more placid.
‘Do you know, master, I think he’s gone.’
Ranulf tentatively stepped from behind his horse, one hand on its muzzle, talking quietly to it. He watched for any movement among the trees.
‘You are safe!’ a man’s grating voice shouted. ‘I mean you no harm! Look at the arrow!’
Ranulf turned to the shaft, still embedded in the trackway before him, and noticed the piece of parchment tied with red twine just above the quill. He ran forward to pluck the arrow out. Sheltering behind his horse, he undid the red cord; the piece of parchment was yellow and greasy but its message was clear enough.
The Owlman sends greetings to the King’s emissary! Justice has already been done. The Owlman sees what he wishes and hears what he wishes! He goes where he wants. Farewell.
Corbett plucked the scrap of paper from Ranulf’s fingers and read it.
‘He’s well named,’ he commented. ‘The Owlman, a bird of the night which swoops silently on its prey. I wonder if he’s our assassin?’
‘Why the message?’
‘He’s simply making his mark!’ Corbett grinned. ‘Or telling us, in his own way, he’s not Lord Henry’s murderer.’
He thrust the scrap of parchment into his wallet and remounted.
‘He means us no harm.’
They moved on cautiously, studying the forest on either side, fearful of another attack, until they reached the crossroads where a decaying gibbet post hung lopsidedly, the piece of hemp in the rusty iron hook dancing in the morning breeze.
‘We follow the path straight on,’ Corbett said.
The trackway dipped, turned and then broadened. In a large clearing before them rose the honey-coloured stone walls of St Hawisia’s priory. Despite the early hour, the place hummed with activity; lay brothers were going out into the fields, traders and chapmen were making their way up to the main gates. Peasants, their carts piled high with produce for the priory kitchens, were also assembled, waiting for the gates to be opened.
‘The priory must own its own lands,’ Corbett decided. ‘From what I gather, it’s a little kingdom in itself, so let’s see its ruler.’
He gazed appreciatively at the buildings rising above the curtain wall: black and red slate roofs, a soaring church tower. Somewhere deep in the priory a bell tolled and the morning air wafted rich, savoury odours from the kitchens.
They asked directions from a peasant.
‘Well, you can wait like us,’ the pock-marked fellow replied, his nose and cheeks chapped by wind and sun. ‘Wait, as we always do, in the snow, rain or sun for their ladyships to open the gates.’ He pointed further down the wall. ‘Or you can try the postern door. But God help you if it’s not urgent business!’
Corbett thanked him and dismounted. He led Ranulf across and they rapped on the small, metal-studded gate. A grille high up the door was pushed back. Small, black, inquisitive eyes peered out.
‘What do you want? Who are you?’
‘I am Sir Hugh Corbett, King’s emissary, and this is my clerk Ranulf. We demand entrance. We wish to see Lady Madeleine.’
‘You are a liar!’ the querulous voice objected. ‘You are not dressed like a royal clerk!’
Corbett drew out his letter of commission and thrust the red wax seal up against the grille.
‘Open up!’ he ordered. ‘Or I’ll kick this door until it flies off its hinges!’
‘You should have shown me the seal first,’ came the aggrieved reply.
The bolts were pulled back, the gate swung open. The nun standing on the other side was small. She was dressed in a white woollen veil, a cream-coloured coif, and a white gown almost covered by a black apron.
‘I am Sister Veronica!’ she informed them. ‘Cellarer, porter, you name it, I do it.’ She peered up at Corbett, her thin lips tight, her white, wizened face full of hostility. ‘You look like a clerk.’ She glanced at Ranulf. ‘But you don’t. More like a gibbet bird!’
‘Would you say this priory is noted for its charity and Christian welcome?’ Ranulf asked.
The cellarer shook her head. ‘Don’t be impudent, Green Eyes! In my former life I had seven children. Two husbands long dead. Now I am a nun consecrated to God.’
‘And he’s welcome to you!’ Ranulf murmured.
‘What was that?’ Sister Veronica’s hand went to her ear. ‘My hearing’s not what it should be, but did you say something impertinent?’
‘My clerk was simply exclaiming in amazement.’ Corbett took the old woman’s hand. ‘We wish you well, Sister Veronica. However, we are on urgent business. We must see Lady Madeleine as well as the famous shrine.’
Sister Veronica’s face softened. ‘Well, you can see how busy we are going to be. I’d best take you across to the church. You can wait there while I tell the prioress.’
She led them along a pebble-dashed path, through gardens carefully laid out in the French fashion: raised flower beds, herb banks and turfed seats. The air was fragrant with a variety of perfumes. Corbett particularly appreciated the rose bushes planted on either side of the path, which gave off their own special scent. The garden occupied one side of the priory but, in the distance, he could see small orchards of apple, pear and plum trees. Sister Veronica pointed to another wall, its great wooden gates being opened.
‘Beyond that are the stables, outhouses, store-rooms and bakery. On the far side are meadows. We raise good sheep and we even have our own windmill.’
Corbett nodded. St Hawisia’s looked a wealthy establishment. The church before him was built of dressed stone, with a roof of iron-grey slate. The morning sun glistened in the stained glass windows and on either side of the church rose stately mansions of honey-coloured brick, every window sheeted in glass.
‘Our dormitories and refectory are over there,’ Sister Veronica pointed out. ‘We have a guest house and infirmary. Lady Madeleine has her own chambers on the far side of the cloister path near the forest wall. We also own a library and a scriptorium,’ she added proudly.
‘So, your priory is well endowed?’
Sister Veronica stopped abruptly. ‘We bring our own dowries here. The priory has fruitful estates and, of course, St Hawisia looks after us.’ She marched on, her shoulders stooped. ‘I can’t take you into our enclosure. The priory is not yet ready for visitors and Lady Madeleine is very strict about men coming here, be they clerk or prince. That’s why you have to wait in church.’
She waved them up the steps but, as Ranulf passed, she caught him by the sleeve.
‘You be careful what you touch. This is God’s house, not some stall in the marketplace!’
Ranulf seized her hand and, before she could protest, raised it to his lips.
‘Sister, I wouldn’t dream of it. I have had the deepest devotion to St Hawisia ever since I was a child. Do you know, when I was a boy I even had a vision of her?’
Sister Veronica’s jaw sagged.
‘Later, Ranulf!’ Corbett warned.
Ranulf again kissed her hand and, before the good nun could think of a suitable reply, followed Corbett into the church.
They stood in the doorway marvelling at the beauty and elegance of this jewel of a chapel. The flagstone floor was scrubbed clean. The pillars, shielding off the transepts, were painted a dark blue with gold crowns. The walls beyond glowed with brilliantly coloured frescoes illustrating scenes from the Bible. At the far end a heavily carved rood screen sheltered the choir stalls and sanctuary. The air was perfumed by flowers in small copper pots at the base of each pillar. Faint clouds of incense still drifted through the air, catching the coloured sunlight shafting through the stained glass windows.
‘Well endowed indeed,’ Ranulf commented. ‘Better than a royal chapel.’
‘With one difference,’ Corbett said. He pointed to the windows painted in shimmering reds, golds, greens and blues.
‘You are a senior clerk in the Office of the Green Wax, Master Ranulf. You have to be keen of wit and sharp of eye. Have you noticed anything? The paintings and the windows?’
Ranulf walked along the church. He prided himself on his education. Hadn’t he his own copy of the Bible and two Books of Hours? And, wherever he went, Ranulf always watched and listened. Some of the scenes he couldn’t recognise but others he could. Judith, from the Old Testament, cutting off her enemy’s head. Ruth the Moabite. One scene caught his eye and he smiled: it showed the serpent tempting Adam. But this time Adam’s body was concealed, only his head stuck out from a thick wall of privet. Eve, however, was shown in all her glory, hand raised as if warning Adam not to succumb. On the wall beneath the window a dramatic scene showed Christ harrowing Hell after the crucifixion where he divided the good from the bad. Ranulf laughed.
BOOK: Hugh Corbett 11 - The Demon Archer
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