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Authors: Margaret Frazer

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BOOK: The Hunter’s Tale
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But she asked, “Could we just stay awhile? It’s quiet here,” sat down beside him when he nodded, took his hand between her own small ones, and leaned against him. Her head came just to his shoulder.

 

Content to stay if she was, Hugh asked with feigned lightness, “Is someone fighting again? Is that why you came for me?”

 

‘They’re just talking. Lucy is. She always does and then everybody else has to talk, too.“

 

‘Words get to be heavy after a while, don’t they? They wear you down.“

 

She nodded against his shoulder but did not say anything and neither did he, only slipped his near hand free of hers and put his arm around her waist, cuddling her to him the way he might have a lonely hound. He guessed they were both in need, himself and her, of someone to hold to and be held by; so he held to her and she held to him and they sat there in the garden quiet, neither of them saying anything while the last afterglow of the sunset faded behind the hall’s roof and the stars thickened across the sky.

 

The green-gold morning was already warm when Frevisse and Sister Johane came out of the church after Mass next day. Such manor servants as had been there headed back to their morning duties at the hall and the villager folk went away to whatever work they could do about their own places while they waited for the dew to dry so harvest could go on. Lady Anneys, as was usual, had not come, nor Miles, but Frevisse had seen him at Mass only the one Sunday since she had come to Woodrim, and Hugh had been no better until this morning. Today he had accompanied his sisters, which made it easier at the Mass’ end, when Frevisse said that she and Sister Johane were going to stay at the church awhile, for them to go happily away with him, back to the hall.

 

She had told Sister Johane on their way to church that she wanted to stay “… to talk a little with Father Leonel. He knows everyone here far better than we yet can. If he can help us understand more, perhaps we can help more.”

 

Sister Johane had readily accepted that. Only while they waited in the churchyard for him to come out did Frevisse suggest she should talk with him alone. “He might be easier with only one of us, rather than two,” she said.

 

‘He might be, yes,“ Sister Johane agreed, possibly a little doubtfully, but she sat down, seemingly content to wait as long as need be, on the mounting block at the churchyard gate while Frevisse went back to the church door. Until last night she had not considered consulting the priest; he had seemed only an old man enduring a thankless place by being and seeing as little as he could. The exchange at supper last night had changed her mind about that and now she wanted to know not only what he knew but what he thought, and that, indeed, he would probably better say to one person than to two.

 

Father Leonel seemed surprised but not unwelcoming to find her there when he came out, but when she asked if she might speak with him, he only asked, “Inside or out here, my lady?”

 

‘Out here, if it please you. The day is so fair.“

 

‘It is indeed. But I pray you pardon my aged body and let us sit.“

 

There was a bench made of a roughly flattened log pegged a-top two sawn-off stumps of wood beside the low churchyard wall well away from the gateway. Father Leonel led her there across the sheep-cropped grass of the churchyard’s grave mounds and hollows, sat down with stiff carefulness, and said, “Oddly enough, hot, damp days bother my aches more than cold ones do. It’s a sorry thing when one has to be grateful for winter.” He settled himself, rested his gnarl-knuckled hands on his knees, and asked as Frevisse sat down beside him, “Is it spiritual counsel you want or help to deal with the Woderoves?”

 

Frevisse gave a small, surprised laugh. “The Woderoves,” she said, returning the favor of his directness. “Sister Johane and I want to give comfort and be a help but there’s so much pain here that we don’t understand.”

 

‘I can give so little of the so much comfort that’s needed that any comfort you can give will be most welcome. But where to start.“ Father Leonel drew and released a deep breath. ”To begin, let it be said straight out that we’re all the better for being rid of Sir Ralph.“

 

‘I’ve gathered that,“ Frevisse agreed. Though she had hardly expected him to say it out so bluntly.

 

‘You’ve probably gathered enough that I need say nothing else about him?“ He looked at her questioningly and she nodded that that was true. ”What have you determined about Lady Anneys in the while you’ve known her?“ he asked.

 

‘That she’s endured by burying herself so deeply it will be a wonder if she ever finds herself again.“

 

Father Leonel’s gaze at her became considering. “That’s well seen,” he said slowly. “Very well seen.” He thought about something for a moment, then said, “My hope is that enough of the strength she used to bury herself remains for her to bring herself back to life. Her children are going to need her.”

 

‘And Miles.“

 

‘Miles is a son to her in all but blood, but yes, perhaps Miles most especially. And Ursula.“

 

‘Ursula? Was Sir Ralph particularly cruel to her?“ It was Miles he was particularly cruel to, having come to ate the boy’s father so greatly and despising his mother.”

 

‘Why?“

 

‘Sir Ralph hated Miles’ father, his son, because the young man went against his wishes in everything. He hated Miles’ mother because, as Sir Ralph often said—often enough that I remember the words—’The woman is French. What in the devil’s name is there to like about her?‘ Besides, like his son, she fought Sir Ralph almost every day she knew him. Then, like his son, she died, and that left only their son for Sir Ralph to pay back for the both of them.“

 

Frevisse considered the ugliness of soul a man had to have to keep up that cruelty for year after year against a boy who had done nothing but be born.

 

‘As for Ursula,“ Father Leonel sighed, ”her trouble has been that she was her father’s favorite. Can you imagine being the favored, petted, well-beloved child of a man who was a monster to everyone else around you?“

 

Barely, Frevisse could and said with muted horror, “Blessed St. Nicholas.” The patron saint of children.

 

Father Leonel nodded in dark agreement. “Yes. A person might well turn either into a monster or, if their heart is good enough to resist that, live constantly trying not to cringe from him. Happily, Ursula’s heart is good.”

 

‘But if she was his favorite, how did he come to send her away to the nunnery?“

 

Father Leonel rubbed at one hand with the other. “I think he saw it as a way to keep her for himself forever. Rather than give her up to a worldly husband, he intended she should become a nun and spend her life in prayer for him.”

 

‘And Lady Elyn’s marriage was because Sir William was his friend?“

 

‘Partly, but mostly as a way to keep up hope of his properties and Sir William’s being someday joined, if not in this generation, then perhaps a later. Sir William’s only child, Philippa, had always been intended to marry Tom as Sir Ralph’s heir. When Sir William began to think of marrying again, meaning he might have a son to replace Philippa as his heir, Sir Ralph reckoned to bring Sir Ralph’s lands his way by marrying Elyn to Sir William. That way any more children Sir William had would be his grandchildren.“

 

‘But now that Tom is dead?“

 

‘I expect the expectation is for Master Hugh to marry her.“

 

It very surely was, but, “Will he?”

 

‘Very probably. He favors no one else so far as I know. They get on well enough together and all the reasons for marriage between Sir William’s and Sir Ralph’s heirs remain.“

 

‘I gather Hugh got on better with his father than anyone else did?“

 

‘He got on best with Sir Ralph, yes. Hugh is quiet-spirited enough he would rather oblige than quarrel, and their shared love of hounds and hunting meant he had some use and value to his father.“

 

‘And Tom?“

 

‘Tom,“ Father Leonel said with a smile and softened voice that showed who had been his favorite. ”Tom had something of his father’s quick angers but a better heart. A far better heart.“ The old man’s voice twisted with grief.

 

He’s a loss beyond measure.“

 

Frevisse paused for his grief, then said gently, “It must have been more than only hard for you to see all this and be able to do so little. At least I suppose, from what I hear of air Ralph, there was little to be done with him?”

 

Father Leonel’s aged face and voice hardened. “There was Nothing anybody could do with Sir Ralph except endure him, and yes, it was very bitter being priest to a man whom Nothing could touch. Not guilt or pity. And never love.”

 

‘But you stayed. Was there never chance to go? Plead your age and be given an easier parish?“

 

‘I was needed here,“ Father Leonel said simply. ”By everyone else if not by Sir Ralph. At least I could give comfort to some, shelter to others, and keep from quarreling with the man. Another priest might have given way to quarreling and, believe me, that would have done far more harm than good. To cross Sir Ralph in anything was merely to make the matter worse.“

 

‘How did he come to die? I know he was killed in the forest but nothing else.“

 

Father Leonel sighed from far down inside himself and turned his head away to stare toward the forest’s edge dark along the rising ground beyond the manor; stared for a long while before he said at last, his gaze still away, “There had been a hunt that day. Only hare-coursing since it was nigh to high summer. There’s a place not far inside the wood where they often gather before or during or after a day’s hunting to rest and eat. A clearing with a spring and a small stream. They were there that day for the midday meal and resting afterwards, meaning to hunt again in the afternoon. I understand what happened was that one of the young hounds ran off into the woods and Sir Ralph and some of the others went after it. A while later, still searching for the dog, Hugh found Sir Ralph instead. Very dead. He had been savagely attacked, struck on the head with a rock. Struck many times. No one let Lady Anneys see the body. Nor his daughters. All was baa enough as it was. By the time I was brought, Lady Elyn was screaming and crying so that her mother had to be comforting her when it should have been the other way around.‘

 

‘Lady Elyn was there?“

 

‘What? Oh, yes. They all were. Sir William, Lady Elyn-Philippa, Master Selenger. Lucy, too.“

 

‘Sir William’s steward was there?“

 

‘He’s Philippa’s uncle, too. Brother to Sir William’s first wife. As much family as steward, you see.“

 

‘Was that usual, for them all to be here?“

 

‘Oh, yes. Sir Ralph and Sir William shared a passion for hunting. They often hunted together.“

 

Frevisse hesitated over what she wanted most to ask: Did he have any thought of who might have killed Sir Ralph? She had claimed her questions were for the sake of understanding more so she could comfort better, and she had already ranged somewhat far from that—far enough that another straying question would make small difference, she decided and asked, “There’s no talk about who might have killed Sir Ralph?”

 

‘Talk?“ Father Leonel pulled himself straight as if his back ached. ”Alas, there’s always talk.“ He braced his hands on the bench to either side of himself and began the slow work of pushing himself to his feet. Frevisse quickly helped with a careful hold on his arm. On his feet at last, Father Leonel thanked her and began a stiff shuffle back toward the gate. She matched her steps to his but asked nothing more. They went in silence until, almost to the gate, he added, ”The only surety is that whoever did it must be far away by now, escaped from the law’s judgment maybe, if not from God’s.“

 

There was a second surety, too, Frevisse thought suddenly—that everyone
wanted
Sir Ralph’s murderer to be someone long gone.

 

And that, unwillingly, made her wonder if he was.

 

At the gate she thanked Father Leonel for his time and help. He blessed both her and Sister Johane and was shuffling back toward his church as they went their way away toward the hall. Taken up with her own thoughts, Frevisse aid not notice Sister Johane’s silence until, almost to the manor yard, she asked, “Was he able to help?”

 

Nearby, Frevisse said, “Very little,” before she remembered the reason she had given for wanting to talk with him and said instead, “Lady Anneys’ husband was something of a monster. You’ve spent most time with the girls. Have they talked about him?”

 

‘So very little that I’ve been wondering about him. They talk about their brother Tom but almost never about their father.“

 

‘He seems to have cared for nothing much beyond himself and his dogs. Everyone lived afraid of his anger. Even Father Leonel, I think.“

 

‘Nobody
seems
to mind he’s dead, that’s certain,“ Sister Johane said. ”It’s their brother that Lucy and Ursula are mourning, not him at all.“

 

‘Everyone seems to mourn Tom. Everyone seems to have liked him and thought things would go well with him as lord of the manor.“

 

‘Well, Master Hugh seems a good young man, too. He’s kind to his sisters and his mother, certainly.“

 

‘What do you think of Miles?“

 

Sister Johane was silent a time before she answered, “He makes the girls laugh and I think he’s Master Hugh’s good friend, but he always seems like he’s about to be angry at something.”

 

‘By what Father Leonel says, Sir Ralph was worse to him than to anybody else.“

 

‘Well, I’m just glad he can make Lucy laugh. He was the first one to give her something else to do besides cry.“ Sister Johane wrinkled her forehead thoughtfully. ”Though she would have stopped sooner or later. You can only cry
so long
before you begin to bore even yourself.“

BOOK: The Hunter’s Tale
8.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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