Authors: Denise Domning
To all of the readers out there who have enjoyed my historical romances. Thank you for reading and I hope you like this mystery just as much.
My apologies to the people of Warwickshire. I have absconded with your county, added cities that don't exist and parsed your history to make it suit my needs. Outside of that, I've done my best to keep my recreation of England in the 12th Century as accurate as possible.
"Tonight you sleep with the angels, my sweet," I tell her and press a kiss to her forehead in blessing.
As I sit back on my heels, I sigh in appreciation. Such beauty! Her skin is fine and soft, spared ever knowing the corruption of lust or the degradation of time. The rain that spits down from an overcast sky settles jewel-like in her dark tresses and on the ring of bright blue flowers I wove as her crown. Her hands are folded sweetly upon her chest, resting atop the posy of meadow flowers I presented to her as her final gift. Now that her nails are pared and her fingers are free of dirt stains, there is nothing to mar their elegance.
The simple white shift she wears is not as fine as those that adorned her spiritual sisters when they made their journey to the gates of Heaven. For that slight I made my apologies to her, assuring her Saint Peter will find no flaw in her plainer attire, not when she is every bit the equal of those I sent on ahead of her.
Nor could I have chosen a more perfect site for her translation. Tall meadow grasses rustle on this treeless hillside, tossing their golden heads in gentle rolling waves driven by a persistent wind. As they bow to Heaven's breath, I catch glimpses of scarlet, white and blue—poppies, daisies and cornflowers, remnants of summer past.
Of a sudden, the clouds part and a single shaft of sunlight sings down. The beam comes to rest on this exact spot.
For breath after breath, the light persists. Tears fill my eyes. My heart soars in joy. I am not forgotten!
I know I have always been the most grateful and caring of His servants. But it has been years since I last felt the call to send Him another one pure enough to serve Him in his heavenly house. If that quiet period could not break my faith, I will admit to feeling tried by His silence.
At last the holy light dims and the time to leave is at hand. I start to turn away only to have my gaze catch on her throat. A tiny rusty smear remains upon the wound that finished her.
I tremble. Was His light blessing or warning?
Not so much as a fleck of earthly smut can defile my offerings. Should I fail in this, neither hairshirt nor scourging will save me from roasting in hell forever. Nor should I be saved, for without His blessing, what I do is naught but murder, pure and simple.
Kneeling at her side, I remove my capuchin. The woolen hood is well-moistened with the rain. Using it, I wipe away the last bit of crusting blood, then survey her once again, seeking further signs of my carelessness. There is nothing.
"Hold me in your heart, little one. Soon enough I will join you and all your sisters in service to our Lord," I tell her in farewell.
I sing my prayer as I tramp back to the road, willing her soul safely and swiftly heavenward, while begging our Holy Master to let her body make an easy return to the earth from which it was created.
Hungry, tired, and crusted with so much dried muck that his chain mail more crunched than jangled, Sir Faucon de Ramis watched the ravens as he rode. At least a dozen of those foul carrion-eaters turned wide circles over the grassy hillside at the far edge of this long low valley. Faucon's lip curled in disgust. Bold creatures those birds were, as quick to feast on the dying as they were to consume the dead. So many in one place always spoke of death, be it human or animal.
Faucon scanned the treeless slope, then followed the line of the Stanrudde Road to where it crested the hill. There was no sign of human habitation. So, it was some wild creature that attracted the birds this time. Nonetheless, he was grateful to turn his shoulder to them when the time came to urge Legate off the muddy road onto the even muddier track that led to Blacklea Village.
After nearly two weeks of constant rain, the sky had finally cleared. Now the descending sun stretched gentle not-yet-rosy fingers across a low defensive mound and the village that spread along its top and sides. His view framed by the arch of his helmet's nosepiece, Faucon eyed his destination in surprise. Why in God's name was his auspicious great-uncle calling him to such an inauspicious place?
The small settlement could contain no more than four hundred homes, if hovels made of mud and manure topped with thatch could be called homes. As in any other place of this sort, the fields that supplied its daily bread were close at hand, just beneath the mound. And just like in any other village, the furrows in the fields as well as the hedges that surrounded them went every which way to take the best advantage of slope, sun and water. In the orchards the trees—be they apple, pear or walnut—were yet heavy with fruits. Harvest time was at hand.
At the next turn of the track, Faucon came upon a crowd of villagers as muck-ridden as he. They were gathering up their tools. With all the rain, their wheat was too wet to harvest, so it seemed they'd spent the day seeding in next year's crop.
Although a lone armed man, even one in full armor, wasn't usually a threat, no one called for him to stop and declare his intentions. That suggested Blacklea had a strong protector and had long known peace.
Shouting and whooping, a gaggle of boys raced from the field and onto the grassy verge. Bare of foot and dressed in brightly-dyed homespun, each one carried a sling and had a sack of stones hanging from his belt. They'd been keeping birds from consuming the newly-sown seeds before they could be covered with soil.
In their native English, the boys threw goads at each other, daring one another to get closer to the knight. They leapt and hopped over clumps of grass, trying to outrun the trotting horse. Legate gave a snort.
Faucon grinned as he understood. His big-hearted boy wasn't as tired as he'd been pretending. He gave the courser his head.
His steed curved his neck in a pretty bow of gratitude, then stretched his legs. In an instant, the boys all bellowed in frustration as the horse left them well behind, his easy gait swiftly eating up the distance to the base of the mound and the flimsy gateway in the village's wholly inadequate defensive wall.
Legate was almost into the opening before Faucon caught a glimpse of the flock of sheep on the other side. He brought his mount to a sliding, dancing halt, just before overrunning the shepherdess. With a cry, she stumbled back from the horse and his deadly hooves. Her sheep scattered, baaing and milling about the narrow lane until it was blocked. The noise brought several housewives to their doorways, their arms crossed and their eyes narrowed against the possibility of livestock invading their front gardens.
"My pardon," Faucon called out in her tongue as the shepherdess caught her footing and straightened. "Are you hurt?"
Dressed in rough gowns of vibrant green, the young woman looked up at him. She wore no head covering, and strands of gentle brown hair straggled and curled out of what had once been the sober confinement of her plaits. She seemed plain until she smiled. The turn of her lips was so compelling that Faucon couldn't help but smile back.
"Ah, racing with our boys I see," she replied in the French of England's ruling class, as the lads who'd tried to outrun Legate streamed into the gateway to thread through her flock as they made their way home. "Would you be Sir Faucon de Ramis?"
"I am," Faucon replied, as startled that she knew his name as by the fact that she spoke his native tongue with but a hint of an accent.
At that, she put her hands on her hips and studied him as boldly as any whore. Her gaze measured the breadth of his shoulders and the length of the sword buckled at his side, as if she could gauge his strength and prowess by eye alone. Apparently he fell short, for she gave a disappointed shake of her head.
"Crusader or not, I fear you're too young to be pitted against Sir Alain. Our sheriff will be sucking the marrow from your bones in no time," she told him.
Faucon frowned at her. "What are you talking about? How do you know me?"
She only cocked a brow at him and smiled once more, sharp amusement filling her blue eyes. "Oh, I shouldn't like to spoil the surprise. By the by, your bishop awaits you at the house, not at the church."
She offered him a bold wink, then put her fingers to her lips and freed a whistle so sharp that Faucon winced and Legate danced. A dog, deerhound-sleek but the same dusky brown color as her sheep, appeared from the back of the wayward flock. Tongue lolling, it darted silently from one side of the track to the other, nipping and snapping, knitting the sheep into a unit. It drove the reformed flock past Faucon and his horse and through the gate within a breath. The shepherdess followed, taking up a position at the rear of the flock this time.
"Which house?" he called after her.
"Follow the track to the green. You'll know it when you see it," she called back without turning, her voice still warm with amusement.
Now, as befuddled as he was tired and filthy, Faucon urged Legate up the rising track, which quickly became no more than two well-used ruts in the ground. It took but a few short moments to reach the village green at the top of the mound.
Studded and rutted with the rocky remains of some ancient construction, the grassy expanse played host to a dozen horses, palfreys all, save for one churchman's donkey. Among them was the graceful gray Faucon recognized as his uncle's favorite mount.
The men who rode these horses were also in the green. With the rain at an end, some had thrown their cloaks onto the piles of rocks to lounge in what sun they could catch, while others crouched in tight groups on the wet grass and gambled, that being the thing most men did to pass an idle hour or two. To a one they wore rough brown and green hunting garments beneath their leather vests.
Blacklea's church sat on one side of the grassy expanse. It was small, but built of stone, its square tower lifting above a gleaming slate roof. Directly across the green from the church was a house.