Hugh Corbett 11 - The Demon Archer (2 page)

BOOK: Hugh Corbett 11 - The Demon Archer
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The Owlman paused to check the arrows in his quiver. Unseen by the friar, this mysterious outlaw of Ashdown then knelt and crossed himself, quickly reciting his favourite prayer.
‘Christ beside me.
Christ behind me.
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left.’
Afterwards a short aspiration to St Christopher. The Owlman pulled down his jerkin and took out the silver cast medal which hung from a piece of twine. He stared at the saint, the Infant Christ on his shoulder. They said that if you looked on St Christopher, just after dawn, then you would not die violently that day. The Owlman would need all the help and protection this saint could give him. Lord Henry, or so the gossips said, had organised a great hunt down near Savernake Dell. He’d fenced off an enclosure for his French visitors, lords and clerks from across the Narrow Seas, to kill the deer which his foresters and verderers drove into it. The Owlman was determined to be present. He wanted to do so much mischief, create so much havoc, that Lord Henry and his guests would never forget this day’s hunting.
The Owlman picked up his bow by the cord-grip round its centre and hurried on. He had to be near Beauclerc hunting lodge in order to watch Lord Henry and his guests leave. The Owlman moved quietly, eyes constantly studying the trees and ground ahead of him. He was now part of a deadly game. Lord Henry’s foresters and verderers, sly knaves all, would love to trap him, haul him as a prize before their master. Or, worse still, if they captured him, execute the forest law, throw a rope over a branch with the end round his neck; then the bastards would squat and watch him slowly choke to death. The Owlman, however, was cunning. More versatile and quick than any reynard, he knew all their wiles and traps while they would never guess who he really was.
The Owlman paused on the edge of a clearing and scrutinised the ground carefully. It had rained yesterday afternoon but the strong autumn sun had dried it up. He looked for any disturbance, any sign of a pit being dug or a rope being laid or one of those great steel traps, their teeth like razors, carefully concealed beneath a bed of red-brown leaves.
When he was about to go across he heard a sound from his left. He quickly took an arrow from his quiver, notching it to his bow, but then relaxed. A fox, triumphant after his early dawn hunt, stepped out of the trees, proud as any champion from the tourney, a lifeless rabbit hanging on its jaws. The fox, arrogant as a prince, trotted across the clearing and disappeared into the bushes on the far side. The Owlman sighed with relief; if the fox sensed no danger, why should he?
He slipped across, silent as a shadow, and reached the welcoming fringe of trees. Here the ground dipped as it fell down to a forest trackway. The Owlman paused. A busy place this, used by forest workers, travellers and pilgrims to the priory of St Hawisia. Merchants, who lodged at night at the Devil-in-the-Woods tavern, a large, spacious hostelry two or three miles further down the road, also journeyed here. The Owlman listened carefully. No sound, no sight. The early morning mist was now lifting. Birds sang in the trees on the other side. He could hear no warning chatter, no alarm raised by those heralds of the forest who always complained so raucously at any trespass on their private domain. The Owlman regarded such birds as his scouts. After all he had been trained well. He had grown up in forests and knew every bird call, every sound. He could distinguish what was usual and what was threatening, what was old and what was new. Satisfied, silent as the fox he had just seen, the Owlman padded down the bank towards the trackway. The birds above began a clamour but this was usual. Once he had passed they returned to their morning song, their usual matins. He paused. He liked that phrase. God’s creatures sang the divine office as well as those haughty nuns in their lavishly decorated priory. Perhaps one day he should pay them a visit, create a little mischief for Lord Henry’s half-sister.
The Owlman hurried on. He never really knew what happened. Perhaps it was God’s way of showing that pride does come before a fall, that he had grown too confident. He reached the far edge of the trackway when he caught a glimpse of steel in the undergrowth. Just in time he drew back, away from the cruel man-trap hidden there. He picked up a stick and furiously lashed out. The trap shut with an angry iron clang so loud that the Owlman missed his footing, slipped on some mud and went tumbling down a bank. He reached the bottom, his hand immediately going to his dagger, gazing fearfully around. He had lost his bow and saw it lying a yard away from him, so he crawled across, pressing down with one hand. He was stretching out when he felt his fingers go beneath the carpet of soil and leaves, touch something cold and soft, something which shouldn’t be there.
The Owlman crouched and, digging like an animal, pulled away the leaves and the veil of soil. A decomposing face stared up at him. The flesh was livid. Now he had moved the dirt and leaves, he caught the tang of corruption; the flesh was putrefying.
‘You must have been here weeks,’ the Owlman whispered.
He dug again, removing the earth, the leaves, the bracken until the entire swollen corpse was revealed. The nails and fingers were carefully tended and he wondered what the body of such a woman was doing in a shallow forest grave. He moved the corpse and then turned away at the odour of corruption. Parts of the flesh had been nibbled by forest creatures. When the waves of nausea passed he examined the face. The words carved above the door of St Oswald’s church, ‘As we are, so shall ye be’, came to mind. The face had once been comely, even beautiful, with high cheekbones, full red lips and eyes, when open, full of life. Her hair was a darkish brown cut close and the neck was used to wearing some gilded necklace or gorget, not that terrible blue-black wound tinged with a reddish-brown. An arrow wound, he reasoned. The shaft had taken her full in the throat, a quick death! But who was she? And how did she come here?
The Owlman sat back on his heels. He knew the forest gossip. Outlaws and wolfs-heads attacked but they very rarely killed their victims, just took what was valuable and fled like shadows. A woman such as this with a soft skin, carefully tended hands? If such a person disappeared there would be hunting parties, questions asked, rewards posted. The Owlman breathed in. Unless, of course, it was the work of Fitzalan? He liked soft, perfumed flesh, did the great lord. Had this young woman displeased him? Had she been hustled out in the dead of night? But why an arrow to her throat? And surely Lord Henry could find deeper pits and more secret places? And what had happened to her clothes? Her possessions? She had apparently been stripped of these. Where was her horse or palfrey?
The Owlman looked up at the crows circling high above their nests. What could he do now? Leave her here? The corpse brought back memories of his own; rekindled his nightmares, the hatred he felt for Lord Henry. He couldn’t leave the body here, not for the scavengers. It would weigh on his conscience and arouse fears of himself being left to die in some lonely spot, his corpse untended. The Owlman recalled his true calling and, bending down, whispered a requiem followed by words of absolution.
On the early morning air, he heard the distant chimes of the bells of St Hawisia’s priory summoning the young ladies to sing their devotions, and smiled. Weren’t nuns committed to doing good works? To tending the sick and burying the dead? The forest was safe. Lord Henry’s verderers and huntsmen would be down near the lodge, well away from any path he had to take. Yes, that was what he’d do. He dare not take it to St Oswald’s, that wouldn’t be fair. No, he’d give Lady Madeleine and her good nuns an opportunity to show some charity. He slung his bow over his back, took off the cloak his friend had given him and wrapped it round the corpse, then lifted it up and ran, at a half-crouch, back across the trackway and into the trees.

Exsurge Domine! Exsurge et vindica causam meam!

‘Arise, O Lord! Arise and judge my cause!’
The good nuns of St Hawisia’s priory chanted, as they had been taught to by the choir mistress the Lady Johanna, the opening verses of the office of Prime. They stood in polished, wooden stalls, row upon row of white-garbed ladies, their habits of pure wool offset only by the starched creamy wimples which framed their faces. Black velvet cords bound their slim waists and a silver medal, depicting their patron saint Hawisia, hung round each of their necks. They all held their Book of Hours as they had been instructed to, carefully mouthing the words, fearful of the eagle eye of their prioress Lady Madeleine, who sat in her great, throne-like stall.
A woman of indeterminate age, the Lady Madeleine! Her hair, of course, was hidden but her oval face was unlined, not marked by any seam or wrinkle of age. She had ice-blue eyes, a sharp beaked nose and a mouth thin and tight when her temper flared. A woman of poise and good breeding, half-sister to the Lord Henry, Lady Madeleine ruled her lavish priory as strictly as any baron did his fief, or constable his castle. She could walk like a queen or as stealthily as a cat when she was on the prowl, as the good sisters put it, looking for any misdemeanour or anything out of place. She seemed to have the ability to be in all places at all times, to be all-knowing about their hidden faults and secret foibles. Above all, the Lady Madeleine appeared to have the gift of being able to read her Book of Hours, sing the divine chant and yet scrupulously study each and every one of them. They all confessed to be in fear of her, be it the sub-prioress, the Lady Agnes, or the novice mistress, the Lady Marcellina.
If the truth be known, Lady Madeleine could also keep her thoughts to herself and, although she studied her Book of Hours, listening to the chant and watching her good sisters in Christ, she was also distracted by the words of the Psalm. How Satan roamed like an enemy! Even here, Lady Madeleine reflected. Her priory of St Hawisia might be a brilliant jewel in the green calm of Ashdown Forest, yet beyond the walls lurked outlaws like the Owlman, that fiery preacher Brother Cosmas, the forest people and, above all, her mocking half-brother, Lord Henry.
Lady Madeleine closed her eyes, then remembered herself and glanced at the illuminated Book of Hours on the lectern before her. The painter had drawn, to mark the beginning of the Psalm, a small picture of the devil as a knight dressed in red armour, in his clawed hand a banner displaying three black frogs. How apposite, Lady Madeleine thought. Satan was a fallen seraph, a knight in eternal revolt against
le bon Seigneur
, Jesus, just like her half-brother. Just like many a knight! Madeleine was proud that her beautiful priory was a sanctuary for women against the cruel, iron world of men.
The prioress glanced to her right through the marble pillars which divided the sanctuary from the great side chapel which bore the blessed remains of the virgin martyr St Hawisia. The saint lay there beneath her polished oaken sarcophagus. On top rested a pure glass case, strengthened with silver beading, the work of a craftsman specially hired from Chartres in France. Madeleine narrowed her eyes. From where she stood she could see the golden hair which lay coiled on the embroidered silk pillow beneath the glass case. The priory’s most precious relic, a source of veneration, pilgrimage and, of course, the income it attracted. Now, thanks to her half-brother’s recent refurbishment, the shrine was more beautiful. Come spring, the word would spread and more pilgrims flock to pay their devotions. Lady Madeleine prided herself on how famous the priory was becoming, not only as a centre of learning and piety for ladies of good breeding, but a hallowed place of pilgrimage. She glimpsed a figure out of the corner of her eye and turned in annoyance. Sister Veronica, the cellarer, was gazing anxiously up, her thin sour face wreathed in concern.
‘What is it?’ Lady Madeleine leaned down.
‘Oh, my lady,’ the cellarer stammered. ‘The corpse of a young woman has been found outside the postern gate.’
Lady Madeleine closed her eyes: this truly must be a day of tribulation.
Chapter 1
A few hours later, just before noon, Lord Henry Fitzalan and his hunting party gathered behind the palisade built around Savernake Dell, a natural clearing in the great forest, the most suitable location for the slaughter to take place. In the distance they could hear the braying horn of a huntsman, the shouts and halloos of the beaters and the deep bell-like baying of the dogs. Lord Henry stretched, cracking his muscles, and surveyed the dell. Everything was ready; the makeshift palisade stretched like a horseshoe screening off the trees. If the huntsmen did their job, particularly that varlet Robert Verlian the chief verderer, the deer would stream into here and his hunting party would have good sport. He snapped his fingers and a young squire hurried up with a gold-chased goblet, which Lord Henry snatched from his hand and sipped. The claret was strong, the best of Bordeaux. The great manor lord handed it back and gripped his stomach; the pains he’d suffered the night before had disappeared. They would spend the afternoon hunting and, this evening, feast on the most succulent venison in his great hall at Ashdown Manor. He looked over his shoulder to where his brother William stood glowering at him, his face full of grievance.
BOOK: Hugh Corbett 11 - The Demon Archer
3.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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