Hugh Corbett 11 - The Demon Archer (4 page)

BOOK: Hugh Corbett 11 - The Demon Archer
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‘I was fortunate, sire. The bolt was small and not fired at full force because the assassin was running. It is wonderful what protection a thick calfskin jacket can afford.’
‘But you were ill?’
Corbett tapped his chest. ‘The bone shattered and healed but the flesh turned putrid.’
‘I sent you medicines.’
‘And my wife, the Lady Maeve, thanks you, sire.’
‘I was going to come and see you.’ The King became shamefaced. ‘But I couldn’t bear to see you die, Hugh. Not lose another loved one. They are all leaving me.’
Don’t start, Corbett thought. Don’t start weeping and becoming maudlin about the past. He respected his King, with his lean, warrior face, that fertile brain which teemed like a box of worms with subtle plans and strategies. But, if he wasn’t a prince, Corbett reflected, Edward should have been a chanteur, a storyteller. He could move, in the twinkling of an eye, from the grieving old king to the energetic bustling warlord, intent on smashing his enemies or sitting in his chancery weaving webs to trap his adversaries abroad. He could be mean-spirited, vicious and spiteful and, at other times, magnanimous, open-handed, forgiving an injury, forgetting an insult. He could sit with the children of his household retainers and roar with laughter at some mummers’ play then stride out into the exercise yard, seize a sword and show the young ones how to fight.
Corbett wondered what mood the King was in this morning. Edward, he realised, had a fear of sickness and death. His old friends were dying and Corbett quietly thanked God that the King had not come down to Leighton Manor. The Lady Maeve would have been driven to distraction. Ranulf alone had almost sent him mad, asking him, on the hour, how he felt, how was the wound? Corbett’s gaze shifted to de Warrenne, who was used to these long silences with the King, but the Earl of Surrey always wore his heart on his sleeve. Despite his boisterous, florid looks, the good earl looked anxious, staring distractedly into the wine cup.
‘I was at Westminster when I received your summons.’ He spoke up.
Edward examined his fingers.
‘The assassin?’ the King demanded, glancing up. ‘I understand your manservant killed him?’
‘I must thank you, sire,’ Corbett deftly replied, ‘for promoting Ranulf to being a senior clerk in the Chancery of the Green Wax.’
‘Yes, yes, yes,’ Edward replied testily. ‘We all know Ranulf’s a clerk but he’s still your manservant.’
Edward became lost in one of his reveries. He’d often wondered whether he could divide Ranulf from Corbett, play them off against each other. Corbett, with his love of the law, his insistence that the courts be all-important. Ranulf by contrast believed in swift and summary execution for traitors, which was the way Edward liked it.
‘I killed the assassin, Your Majesty,’ Ranulf confirmed. He moved in a creak of leather, fingers going down to the sword he was now allowed to carry into the royal presence.
‘Two good blows, I understand,’ Edward replied. ‘To the belly and to the back. Then you cut his head off, set it on a pole and placed it near the main gate in Oxford? The sheriff and the good burgesses were all alarmed?’
‘The sheriff and the burgesses were reminded of the power of the King,’ Ranulf said. ‘I did what I had to do for the good of the kingdom.’ He emphasised the last phrase, the all-powerful permission given to any royal clerk to excuse what he did.
‘What do you think of that, Hugh?’ Edward asked softly.
‘The Church teaches self-defence. And an attack on a royal clerk is an attack upon the King.’
‘Yes, yes, so it is.’ Edward drummed his hands on his stomach. ‘And you are now fit for your duties?’
‘As ever.’
‘You did, once, hand in the Seals,’ Surrey taunted. ‘What did you intend to do, Corbett, become a peasant farmer?’
‘Your Majesty, if I did, I’d come and ask you for all the advice I would need.’
Edward guffawed with laughter. ‘You are bored, aren’t you, Hugh? Lady Maeve, she is well?’
‘As ever, sire. My daughter Eleanor thanks you for the presents your messenger brought from Windsor.’
Corbett shuffled his feet; he was becoming impatient.
‘De Craon’s back in England,’ Edward announced.
‘I heard.’ Corbett smiled. ‘My spies along the south coast keep me closely informed of his journey into Sussex, to Lord Henry Fitzalan’s manor at Ashdown. I understand Lord Henry has been chosen to lead the English envoys to France.’
‘He won’t be going. Surrey here will have to shift his arse and, for once in his life, do something useful.’ De Warrenne belched and smiled to himself.
‘Lord Henry Fitzalan,’ the King explained, ‘took de Craon and his entourage, his brother and members of his household to Savernake Dell. I’ve been there, it’s a clearing in the forest, a good place to drive the deer in so they can be shot at leisure.’ He waved his hand. ‘You know how these things are organised. The hunters stand at one side of the clearing behind a palisade and the deer are driven in. Apparently two were but they escaped. Lord Henry was furious. He was about to loose again when an arrow came out of the trees on the far side of the dell, some fifteen to twenty yards away, and took him clean in the heart.’
‘A hunting accident?’ Corbett queried, ignoring de Warrenne’s snort of ridicule.
‘Hunting accidents do occur,’ the King explained smoothly. ‘But not this time. The arrow was not one used in hunting. It came from a longbow, sharp and pointed, fit for war and the killing it did.’
‘A good archer,’ Corbett agreed. ‘An arrow to the heart, that would be difficult to dismiss as an accident.’
The King wondered how much he should tell Corbett; he was pleased to see the clerk was now sitting up straight, eyes watchful. You are a good hunting dog, Edward thought. I’ll let you loose in Ashdown Forest and we’ll see what you and your red-haired cur can dig up.
‘Lord Henry was a strange man,’ the King continued. ‘He owned vast estates in Sussex and elsewhere. A soldier, a diplomat and a courtier. I sent him on missions to Avignon, Rome and Paris.’ The King paused.
‘Why strange, sire? De Warrenne’s done the same.’ Corbett kept his face straight. ‘And the Earl of Surrey is not a strange man.’
‘Watch your tongue, Corbett!’ the Earl warned.
‘Lord Henry was always a rebel,’ the King said. ‘His father fought with the rebels led by de Montfort but then changed sides, just in time. Lord Henry, well, I trusted him. He was fluent in at least three languages. He could read and write as well as a scholar. He’d even been to the Halls of Cambridge.’
‘You did say strange?’ Corbett persisted.
‘Lord Henry’s views on religion . . .’ the King paused, ‘were, how can I put it, er, quite original. He journeyed to Palestine. He’d stayed with the Templars. Let me just say he found it difficult to accept some of the Church’s teaching.’
‘He dabbled in the black arts?’ Corbett asked. ‘There are reports from the Justices, rumours, whispers, gossip.’
‘He sometimes travelled into Ashdown,’ Edward agreed. ‘And consorted with a witch, or a woman suspected of being one: Jocasta, half-Spanish, the relict of some sailor who settled down outside Rye and was driven out of there. She has a daughter, and Fitzalan gave them a cottage in the forest, a plot of land near a well.’
‘But that’s not all?’ Corbett asked.
‘No, it certainly isn’t. Lord Henry was a lecher. No woman in Sussex was safe from him. He never married and often boasted that he had no need to sip from one cup when he could pick from so many. Now, according to what we have learned, his chief verderer Verlian had a rather comely daughter, Alicia. Lord Henry entered the lists to win her heart and take her body.’
‘And Verlian objected?’
The King shrugged. ‘He didn’t really have to. Alicia did it for him. I met them both once when I was visiting Lord Henry’s manor. Alicia’s small, dark-haired, with a face like an angel and a body which would set our preachers about their ears. Now Verlian was in charge of the hunt yesterday morning at Savernake Dell but he never appeared. Indeed, he seems to have fled and the finger of accusation has been pointed at him.’
‘That would be the logical conclusion,’ Corbett mused. ‘This would not be the first time an irate husband or father had slain a notorious philanderer.’
‘Do you know what that means?’ the King teased de Warrenne.
The Earl picked up his wine cup and sipped from it. The King was on dangerous ground. De Warrenne’s marriage was the gossip of the court. Edward realised he had gone too far and gently squeezed his companion’s hand.
‘If you don’t,’ he urged, ‘ask Ranulf there.’
The newly appointed senior clerk in the Chancery of the Green Wax just glanced away, studying the shields along the wall. One day, he thought, I’ll have my shield there. Sir Ranulf or even Bishop Ranulf! He was learning his lessons fast from Master ‘Long Face’ seated beside him: keep your mouth shut, don’t respond to insults and, if in doubt, just smile, bow and wait for another day.
‘But you don’t believe it’s Verlian, do you?’ Corbett demanded.
‘No, no, I don’t.’ Edward sucked on his lips. ‘Fitzalan was a man I closely watched. Too many fingers in too many plots. Too much money. A man ruled by his cock. He should have married, settled down! Become as miserable as all of us, eh, de Warrenne?’
‘Marriage can be happy, sire!’ the Earl protested. ‘As long as you don’t share the same bed and house!’
Edward laughed softly.
‘I was going to let Fitzalan go to France,’ he continued. ‘I always wondered why he wanted to go and why my dearest brother in Christ, Philip the King, specifically asked for him.’
‘Was he a traitor?’
‘He had lands in Gascony, and I believe his mother was French, but I don’t think so. Traitors are passionate men, Corbett, passionate for an idea or desperate for gold. Fitzalan had no time for the former and too much of the latter. I think he knew something about the French court. He was going back to trade on this.’
Corbett curbed his excitement.
‘So, the French might have resorted to murder? De Craon always has assassins in his train.’
‘Not this time,’ Edward replied. ‘Apparently Fitzalan fell to the ground, and died immediately. Chaos broke out. Sir William immediately rode back to the manor to ensure there was no looting and the treasury was safe. De Craon followed shortly afterwards. From the little I know, none of de Craon’s retinue were unaccounted for.’
‘So, sire, who?’
Edward raised his eyes heavenwards.
‘Sir William stood to gain. He inherits the lot and there was bad blood between the two brothers. And, of course, there’s our dear sister in Christ, Lady Madeleine Fitzalan, prioress of St Hawisia’s, a well-endowed house in Ashdown Forest. Lady Madeleine was highly critical of her half-brother, particularly his views on religion.’
He paused.
‘Anyone else?’
‘Ashdown, like all our forests, has its fair share of outlaws. One in particular, calling himself the Owlman, sent warnings and threatening letters to Lord Henry in the months before he died. Brother Cosmas, a Franciscan parish priest of the local church St Oswald’s-in-the-Trees, also clashed with our good manor lord.’ Edward sighed. ‘The list is endless. And there’s more.’
The King got up and went to kick the door shut, turning the key in the lock.
‘I am sending you down there, Hugh, but you have to be careful. This may be a trap. De Craon might have wanted Fitzalan dead but he may also have come to complete the work of that mad assassin in Oxford!’
Chapter 2
The King filled a goblet and put it down in front of Corbett, whom he studied closely.
‘You don’t seem worried, Hugh.’
Corbett shrugged. ‘De Craon’s been hunting my head for years.’
‘But this time he may intend it,’ de Warrenne put in. ‘Philip is meddling in every court in Europe. He’s made Pope Boniface VIII his virtual prisoner. We know he has spies with the rebels in Scotland and he would love to interfere with our wool trade to Flanders.’ The old earl cleared his throat. ‘He regards you as a bloody nuisance, Corbett. You may have won your wager with Ranulf but they truly want you dead.’
Surrey just wished he could shake this clerk’s composure, but Corbett had been in the game before. He’d heard the whispers, how de Warrenne dismissed him as a clerk, ignoring the dangers, the plots of secret assassins as well as Corbett’s own military service in Wales and Scotland.
‘Are you saying, sire, that de Craon killed Fitzalan knowing that you would send me to Ashdown?’
‘It’s possible there might be another accident in the forest,’ Edward agreed.
‘It’s a pretty theory. But you said there was more?’
‘Yes there is. On the morning Lord Henry was killed, the naked corpse of a young woman was left outside the postern gates of St Hawisia’s priory. Naturally, it sent the good sisters all a-flutter. We don’t know the identity of the girl, where she came from or who loosed an arrow straight into her throat. The corpse was decaying; soil, bits of leaves still clung to it. The nun at St Hawisia’s, who dressed the body for burial, believes this young woman had been killed some time ago and buried in a forest glade. The corpse was then dug up and, as some macabre jest, left at the priory gates.’
BOOK: Hugh Corbett 11 - The Demon Archer
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