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The Murderer's Tale

BOOK: The Murderer's Tale
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The Murders Tale

Margaret Frazer

Chapter 1

Beyond the great hall’s high-set windows the night had begun to gray toward the coming dawn. Giles, seated at the far end of the dais steps and leaned back on his elbows with his legs stretched out at ease in front of him, watched the roof beams take black shape in the graying dark above him. He knew he would soon be visible to the servants at their shift and hurry along the hall’s far side between the lamplit stairs and the porchward glow of the torches in the yard where the horses were being readied for the day’s ride. But for this while more the darkness hid him and he could watch their come and go unseen himself.

The main baggage had been finished with yesterday and was probably long since roped onto the carts that would groan out of the yard as soon as it was light enough to see the road. In the normal way of things they and most of the servants would have been gone a full day ago, to have the Langling manor ready before the household arrived, but there was no need to be that forward this time. The household would be days behind them, damn Lionel and his pilgrimages. The yearly move from Knyvet where they had been since Martinmas to Langling each spring—and then back to Knyvet come late autumn again—was trouble enough for just about everyone. But not for Lionel, who had to waste his prayers and money and everyone’s time going widdershins through half a dozen counties to shrines that almost no one else ever bothered to hear of.

At least at the great pilgrimage places there had been amusements to be had, but now that the Virgin Mary and St. Thomas Becket and the holy blood of Hailes and their ilk had failed him, Lionel had turned to lesser places, to out-of-the-way shrines of out-of-the-way saints where there was nothing to be had but prayer and boredom. And all to no purpose.

But Lionel would not give it up. Not him. He still clung to his idiot hope that he would be cured and could not see that if these saints he was bent on now were any good, they would have something more to show for it than crock-sized chapels on back roads.

Giles sat up and stretched his arms forward, easing his shoulders. At least along the way this year there would be a few days at Lord Lovell’s. Belatedly, after a three years’ lapse, Lionel’s overlord wanted to see how well or—more to the point—how ill Lionel was doing, and Lord Lovell kept a goodly table and had been rebuilding Minster Lovell these past years so there should be at least good eating and some comforts.

Unfortunately the church at Minster Lovell was dedicated to St. Kenelm, and that had given Lionel the notion to go on pilgrimage not only there but to St. Kenelm’s shrine and grave at Winchcombe Abbey and then, God help it, to the six other smaller churches dedicated to him that were scattered around this only corner of England that bothered with so nobody of a saint.

Leave it to Lionel, Giles thought, to go chasing down the relics of a boy-king murdered hundreds of years ago for no more holy purpose than that his sister was ambitious and her lover compliant. Kenelm was not even known for curing the falling sickness so far as Giles had ever heard, and wasn’t that supposed to be the purpose of all this?

But Lionel was long past reason in the matter and, come what might, to all seven shrines, no matter how miserable they were, he meant them to go before he was finished.

A servant coming off the bottom step from the stairs stumbled, probably over his own clumsy feet, and lost his grip on one side of the chest he was carrying. One heavy end thudded to the floor. The man cursed, both at the chest and at the laughter of one of his fellows coming behind him with a cloth-wrapped roll. Together they bent to see if there was any damage, then he hauled it back into his arms and they went on, laughing together over something.

Giles nodded to himself. There had been light enough to recognize Dickon, and time would come when Giles would have his holly stick to hand and Dickon in reach, and then Dickon would pay, with interest, for his carelessness and his laughter at it. Better late than never, though Dickon probably would not think so, and that—along with Dickon’s yelps—would be part of the amusement.

Giles stood up. The windows were lightening with the growing day and time was come to see how things went above stairs.

Much as he had expected, he found. They were almost done. Servants were carrying the last of the baggage out of the parlor, and Lionel and that damned Martyn were standing by the table near the shuttered windows where what there was for breakfast this morning was laid out. The hardening ends of yesterday’s loaves and the unspiced middle of last night’s meat and likely only lukewarm ale in the pitcher when it should have been hot, spiced wine. A chill April dawn with nothing better to look forward to than a day’s long riding was not his most favorite time; spiced wine would have helped his mood at least a little and made the meal palatable if not pleasurable. When he was master here—and God help him make Lord Lovell see it should be soon—things would be better ordered by a long way.

But for now everything was Lionel’s and none of it was Giles’ except for what Lionel allowed him. Everything except for Edeyn. She was the one thing of dear cousin Lionel’s that Giles had taken for himself. The thought made him smile as he joined Lionel and Martyn beside the table, loathing the both of them as he did so. His long-jawed cousin could never seem to keep it in his head that Martyn was servant here, not master. They kept company together thick as thieves, Martyn always somewhere close to hand and no room left for Giles to work things the way he wanted them to go.

It had been like that for fifteen years now, ever since the first fit had come on Lionel. He had been fourteen then and Giles eighteen and glad to show his little cousin the way things ought to be. They had been in the stable yard, talking with Martyn, who was only twenty but already acting like he knew more than all of them together just because his father was Lionel’s father’s steward, and some stable hands, and there had been nothing different to warn what was going to happen. One moment Lionel had been standing there, talking, laughing. The next he had been on the ground, gone down and unconscious like a struck ox. They had all stared at him, too startled to move. And then before they had their wits about them, he had begun to jerk, in spasms at first and then a wild writhing, grunting and with a froth at his mouth.

They had pulled back from him, bumping into each other in their haste, understanding now, crossing themselves in desperate protection against whatever fiend, demon, or demons had entered him and was fighting for his body.

Except for Martyn. He had jumped back with the rest of them sharp enough when Lionel began to writhe and gibber, but he was a knave in the grain even then. Already marked to follow his father as the steward of the Knyvet lands, he knew how to keep his bread buttered side up. Against anything like common sense, he had caught himself and, as everyone drew further back, went forward and down on his knees beside Lionel, trying to hold him still, to keep his head from battering against the cobbles, while yelling for someone to bring the priest.

Someone had grabbed back wits enough to run then, but the rest of them had just stayed frozen with horror, Giles included, watching Martyn trying to hold Lionel, praying out loud over him until finally the fit ended and Lionel lay there unconscious, slack, his bloodied head lolling in Martyn’s hands.

The priest had finally come, and plenty of other folk, too. There had been no question of keeping the matter quiet. The master’s heir had been taken by a demon in front of half a dozen men and that was too many mouths to keep shut. As it was, of all those who were there and came, no one had wanted to touch Lionel even when the fit was past. Only Martyn’s angry orders had forced some of them—not Giles—to lift him, carry him inside.

By then some of the horror had eased. Martyn had had help to wash him, treat his hurts, put him to bed. He had looked to be no more than asleep then, but a sleep so deep that nothing wakened him. The priest had gone on praying over him, and eventually Lionel came conscious, dazed, exhausted, with no memory of anything between standing in the stable yard and waking in his bed.

He never remembered, not that fit or the very many others there had been since then. Giles had seen more of them than he wanted to and avoided as many as he could. That at least had become easier since Lionel had come to know the signs that one was coming. He used them for warning to withdraw to somewhere alone except for Martyn. The demon might leave him alone for months at a time, but when it came on him it was vicious, and Martyn was the only person Lionel would accept near him. Come to that, it was only Martyn who wanted to be near him. Everyone else was more than willing to keep far away, because a man with demons trying to wrench his soul and body apart was more than just an ugly sight. He was dangerous, because who could guess where a demon might decide to go when it let him loose? Anyone near might be fair game.

But nearly always good old Martyn was there, trying to save damned Lionel from injury as much as might be and tend to him afterward when he was exhausted, dazed, and sometimes hurt. Good old Martyn who had thereby become more master than servant here when instead it should all have come to Giles.

For a while it had seemed that Lionel would lose his right to inherit because of his fits, and Giles had had hopes. As Lionel’s cousin by Master Knyvet’s younger brother, he was the next male heir of the blood and everything would come to him if Lionel were ruled unfit to inherit. But his uncle had gone to great legal lengths and great expense to protect and insure that Lionel would follow him. The waste of money and favors had set Giles’ teeth on edge and, worse, now that his uncle was dead, he had to watch Lionel enjoy everything that could so easily have been his by now. Oh, he would have it someday, since Lionel was unmarriageable—both of his own choice and because no woman would have him, not even Edeyn—and therefore, since there would be no heirs of Lionel’s body to succeed him, everything would come to Giles eventually.

It was the “eventually” that irked.

That and having nothing of his own except a single manor with a broken-down hall and paltry lands, so that it was far more comfortable and convenient to live on Lionel’s bounty than his own, even if it did mean watching Lionel have and spend what should have been his by now and might not be his for a long while yet to come because the fits did not kill, only tormented, more was the pity.

To make matters worse, Martyn had followed his father as steward of the Knyvet lands after his father died a year after Master Knyvet. Giles had had some thought that with his uncle and his uncle’s steward gone he would have more hand in things, more influence over Lionel, some benefit from Lionel’s curse, but first, last, and always good old Martyn was there and in the way.

He and Lionel were laughing now over something Giles had not heard as he entered, even while they turned from the table, done with their breakfast, to greet him.

“Giles! No one could find you,” Lionel said. “We thought you’d started off without us. Have you eaten?”

“Not yet. I was out and about to see if everything was going on as it should be.” He had not been, but they would not bother to ask anyone. The point of it was his glance at Martyn to show he thought it should have been Martyn out there instead of him, but Lionel missed his look, the way Lionel missed most of what Giles wanted him to see. It was Martyn who caught it clear enough and quirked a corner of his mouth in amused acknowledgment mixed with refusal to be drawn.

He was sharp, was Martyn. As sharp as Lionel was dull. And insolent, knowing how strong his hold on Lionel was, with no fear of it ever being broken. Giles meant to break that insolence someday. To—not just once but for always, please God—wipe that satisfaction off Martyn’s face.

But it would not be now, and he joined them at the table with a smile, chose among the loaf ends for one not gone too dry, and found a piece of roast that suited him, savory with a crust of herbs. But as he had feared the pitcher only held plain ale.

To make some use of the time he said, “Dickon dropped one of the chests at the foot of the stairs just now. You might want to see if aught was damaged.”

Idly spearing a bit of meat with his dagger, Lionel said, “Everyone knows Dickon is a ham-fisted simpleton.”

“So we see to it he’s only given things to carry he can’t damage,” Martyn added.

Giles shifted ground. “What was so funny when I came in?”

Lionel grinned. “A riddle. Martyn has a new one.”

Giles’ belly lumped cold around the meat he had just eaten. Martyn and Lionel and their damned riddles. God knew Lionel’s long-jawed face with its scar across brow and bridge of nose from when he had fallen against a lighted lamp in a sudden fit four years ago looked the better for laughter, but those damned riddles…

He looked at Martyn matching Lionel’s grin and managed to say evenly, “A new one? I should have thought there was not a riddle left the two of you had not tried out. What, pray, is it?”

Lionel and Martyn exchanged a glance of shared amusement. “You ask it,” Lionel said. “It’s yours.”

BOOK: The Murderer's Tale
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