When a young woman is found murdered at a local shrine with a black adder near her corpse, the superstitious villagers begin to panic. Is this the work of the devil? Is Satan stalking Lincoln’s religious sanctuaries? As parishioners start to avoid the churches in droves, Templar Bascot de Marins is summoned to Lincoln Castle to quell the hysteria and find the very human killer...
Praise for the Templar Knight Mysteries
“Maureen Ash masterfully creates a medieval world full of rich historic detail and peopled with fascinating characters.”—Victoria Thompson, national bestselling author of Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue
“A deft re-creation of a time and place, with characters you’ll want to meet again.”—Margaret Frazier, national bestselling author of the Sister Frevisse Medieval Mysteries
“Fans of quality historical mysteries will be delighted...Ash’s period detail and plotting are first-rate, superior to many other representatives of the rarefied subgenre.”—Publishers Weekly
“An excellent mystery, very suspenseful and clever, with a sympathetic sleuth sure to captivate readers.”—Sharon Kay Penman, New York Times Bestselling Author
“A perplexing mystery with a flawed but sympathetic hero...An enjoyable read.”—Gumshoe
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Cast of Characters
Bascot de Marins—A Templar knight
Gianni—A mute Italian boy, former servant to Bascot, now a clerk in castle scriptorium
Nicolaa de la Haye—Hereditary castellan of Lincoln castle
In the Castle
Roget—Captain of the town guard
Ernulf—Serjeant of Lincoln garrison
Feradac MacHeth—Deputy preceptor
William of Blois—Bishop of Lincoln
Roger de Rolleston—Dean
Thomas Hurdler—Gwen’s husband
Goddard—Serjeant of Newark castle
Emma Ferroner—Robert’s daughter
Noll—Master armourer, employee of Robert Ferroner
Thea—Robert Ferroner’s housekeeper
Lorinda—Robert Ferroner’s paramour
Granny Willow—Lorinda’s grandmother
John Glover—Soap manufacturer
Mabel Glover—John’s wife
Ivo and Cerlo—Town guards
Lincoln Town—Late Summer 1179
“I am come, Robert Ferroner, to hold you accountable before witnesses. You gave me a pledge of marriage and it is past time for you to honour it. When will you do so?” The young woman spat out the accusation, dark eyes ablaze and arms akimbo.
Her scathing words shattered the lazy hum of conversation among those gathered at the small marketplace alongside the riverbank, and everyone turned to stare. There were bargemen and sailors come ashore for a cup of ale, workmen from nearby manufactories, and a small knot of gossiping goodwives. They had all been enjoying the late afternoon sunshine and relaxing from their day’s labours when she had suddenly appeared in their midst and flung out her challenge. With mouths agape, they swung their heads in the direction of the young man to whom she was speaking.
He had been standing at leisure, munching on an apple and chatting to a fruit-seller, but at the sound of his name, he turned swiftly. About twenty years of age, tall and burly, he had massive shoulders and a leonine head of straw-coloured hair. The son of a prominent armourer who had premises farther along the riverside, he had already, despite his young age, earned a dissolute reputation because of his predilection for ale and loose women. Usually bluff and genial to all, he stood his ground and gave the young woman a defiant answer as a frown appeared on his brow.
“I did not promise to wed you, Lorinda, and never will do. Why would I marry such as you? You are little better than a harlot.”
The crowd was agog, attention avid as they listened to every word of the exchange.
Lorinda advanced a few paces towards her erstwhile lover, head thrown back on her graceful neck so that her long dark hair flew in a mass of curls about her shoulders. No head covering such as decent women wear contained her beautiful tresses, and her gown was cut too low for modesty. She was very handsome, and many a man in the crowd licked his lips at the sight of her. Even in a fury, she was extremely desirable.
“You shall rue the day you refused me,” she replied in words of menace, her upper lip curled with contempt. “And even more so, you shall regret your foul slander of my virtue. I hereby curse you, Robert Ferroner, to be thrice damned—in the woman you marry, the children she bears you, and in your fortune. And when you are living in a hell here on earth, you will remember me, and that it was Lorinda who put you there.”
With these last words, she turned and stalked off, black hair flying and the skirt of her scarlet kirtle billowing around her ankles. The crowd, after a collective gasp, fell silent, and it was not until she had disappeared from view that they turned to look at the armourer’s son.
He was standing as still as if he had been turned to stone, his countenance blanched white. Suddenly he shook his great head and, seeming to come to his senses, turned to face the crowd.
“It would seem I have been well and truly chastised for my wanton behaviour,” he said, making a feeble attempt to inject levity into the humiliating situation. “And there will be more punishment to come when my father hears of it.”
A few of the men in the crowd gave a weak smile at his words; John Ferroner’s disapproval of his son’s wild ways was well-known, but the group of goodwives shook their heads reprovingly. They all, to a woman, were heartily censorious of his lewdness, and it would take more than a display of feigned remorse to change their opinion.
“’Twould serve you right, young Ferroner, if your father took a rod to your back,” one old beldame declared, withered lips pursed in disapproval. Her female companions nodded in agreement.
“Since it was his own rod that got him into trouble in the first place,” one of the bargemen called out waggishly, “it might be wiser if his sire instead forged a shackle to contain it.”
The bawdy comment broke the tension, and even the women smiled at the jest. Responding with a look of mock horror, Robert said he had best get home before such a notion occurred to his father, and with a cheeky bow in the direction of the gaggle of women, he turned and walked away.
As he made his way along the path to the armoury, Robert was not quite as sanguine as he had striven to appear. It did not take much reckoning to know what had caused Lorinda’s outburst, for it could only be that she had heard he had recently become enamoured of Edith, the daughter of a cloth merchant in the town, a lovely young woman he had asked to be his wife a few days ago. While it was true he had tumbled Lorinda a few times out in the greenwood during the summer, it had only been in a casual fashion. He had spent the earlier part of most of the evenings he had lain with her in an alehouse and had consequently been ale-shotten when they coupled. While he may have uttered a few words of endearment during their lovemaking, he was quite certain that, even with his wits mazed by ale, he had never made a promise to wed her. Why would he? She had not been a maid when he first lay with her, and even if he had cared for her, which he didn’t, he would never have contemplated taking other men’s leavings for a wife. If she had mistakenly interpreted his passionate murmurings as such, that was her fault.
But rightly or wrongly, he now feared that Lorinda’s allegation would ruin his bid for Edith’s hand. His beloved was a girl of chaste virtue and had already gently scolded him for his libertine ways. He had promised her that he would lead a life of sober respectability if she consented to marry him, and that was a pledge he intended to keep. But when the gossip about himself and Lorinda reached her—as it was sure to do—would she still look with favour on his suit? How could he convince her that his last romp with Lorinda had been almost a month ago, long before he had asked for Edith’s hand, and that he had not dallied with her since, much less spoken of marriage to her?
And quite apart from concerns about Edith’s reception of the disastrous incident, he had to admit that Lorinda’s curse had shaken him, for she was the granddaughter of a witch, a woman who had congress with the Devil. If Lorinda was as skilled in the dark arts as her grandam, might not the curse prove true? A shudder passed through his large frame at the thought of such a terrifying prospect. Crossing himself, he fervently murmured a plea for Christ’s protection, then repeated to himself the words from the psalm that was a favourite among those who crafted armour—“The Lord is my strength and my shield”—until he was fortified. By the time he reached his father’s workshop, he had resigned himself to acceptance of the heavy penance his father would most surely mete out when he learned of his errant son’s latest misbehaviour.
* * *
Later that day, Lorinda was sitting on a stool in her grandmother’s small cot in the greenwood south of Lincoln, her temper still boiling. She had told her grandmother, Granny Willow, what had passed in the marketplace and how she had laid a curse on Robert Ferroner. Granny, a small, sturdy woman with a gentle and surprisingly unlined face for her age, had been sorting some herbs she had picked that morning when her granddaughter had stormed in and, after laying the small wicker basket of plants aside, had listened in silence to Lorinda’s tirade, and was shocked by it. She had raised her granddaughter almost from birth, ever since the day when the girl’s mother—Granny’s only child—and her husband had been crushed to death when the wain in which they had been riding was overturned by a fractious bullock. Lorinda had not been an easy child to care for and reminded Granny of her own mother, after whom Lorinda had been named. Wilful, high tempered and selfish, with a good measure of lasciviousness thrown in. This latest turmoil in her granddaughter’s life was but one more incident in a succession of tempestuous love affairs that had been going on since she reached puberty. The only difference with Ferroner was that, unlike all of Lorinda’s previous lovers, it had been he who ended their liaison instead of her. Because of this, Granny now wondered if her granddaughter truly cared for the armourer’s son or if her fury had been aroused solely by injured pride. At the moment, however, Granny was more concerned about Lorinda’s soul than the reason for her indignation.
“If Ferroner is foolish enough to prefer that whey-faced draper’s daughter to me,” Lorinda continued heatedly, “then he shall pay for it, and count the cost dearly. I shall never forgive him for his betrayal, never.”
“Be careful you are not the one who is punished, Lorinda,” Granny warned. “Ill-wishing someone, deserved or not, is an invitation to the Devil to come into your heart, and may rebound on you instead. You must not think any more of reprisal, but instead of your own welfare and that of the child you are carrying.”
Although Lorinda had told Robert Ferroner that Granny Willow was a witch, she had done so only in order to create, in his eyes, a reflected aura of mystery about her own self. Her grandam was not, in fact, a witch, but a simple cunning woman, called so because of her extraordinary talent for preparing medicaments from herbs and other plants, especially a decoction made from white willow bark which she administered to those suffering from a fever or joint pain. It was due to its marvellous efficiency that she had come to be called by the name of the tree from which it was made. Far from dealing in the dark arts or having traffic with the Evil One, she was a devout Christian, honoured and respected by all of the villagers from the nearby hamlet of Coleby. Her admonition to Lorinda was heartfelt. At her advanced age, Granny had seen many a person’s life ruined from failure to resist the Devil’s tempting. Satan was wily, taking any opportunity to steal a soul from Christ, and she now feared her granddaughter had fallen into his evil trap.
But Lorinda paid her grandam’s admonition no heed. “If the Devil tempted me, Granny, it was worth it.” She gave a mirthless laugh as she recalled her triumph, fully realising that Ferroner believed her grandam might have taught Lorinda her supposed evil powers and, if so, that her malediction would come to pass. “You should have seen his face when I laid the curse on him,” she added. “He was terrified. And so he should be, for I promise you the day will come when he will sorely repent his rejection of me.”
Granny, realising any further caution would be futile, said no more and listened with a heavy heart as her granddaughter rose from her seat and announced her intention to leave their home and seek her fortune elsewhere. Lorinda had yet to learn that heaven, as well as hell, could extract retribution and that, of the two, a holy vengeance was far more terrible.
Twenty-five Years Later—Summer 1204
As the cathedral bells tolled the hour of Prime, the first religious service of the day, the guards on Newport Arch, the northern exit from Lincoln town, swung open the heavy oaken gates to admit traffic. There was already a throng of people waiting to leave, anxious to start their journey before the sun got too hot to make travelling comfortable. In front of them stretched the continuation of Ermine Street, the great thoroughfare that started in London and went all the way through Lincoln and on to York. The crowd was motley—pedlars and tinkers, merchants and labourers, messengers and beggars, all setting out northwards to their various destinations, and already other travellers could be seen coming southwards, carts laden with early fruit and vegetables to take into the town and sell in markets, bent on an early arrival. Forest lined either side of the road, mainly of oak, but with a few birch and hawthorn trees, all proudly wearing new foliage.
In the midst of those leaving the town were two young women. One of them was Emma Ferroner, daughter of Robert and his lovely Edith, and born a year after their wedding. Tragedy came to the devoted couple soon after this happy event, for a virulent fever descended on Lincoln town and struck down many of the townsfolk, including Edith and, soon afterwards, her mother as well, who contracted the sickness when she came to nurse her daughter. Emma was not aware of the curse that had been laid on her father, only that, in later years, whenever he spoke of her mother, he seemed to unreasonably blame himself for her death. He had always been overly protective of herself as well, almost as though he feared that she, too, would come to harm if he didn’t constantly watch over her. It had been with the greatest difficulty that she had persuaded him to let her come to the shrine with only a female friend for company, claiming it would be better if he, or her husband, accompanied her. His attitude had always puzzled her, but eventually she had assigned it to the fact that he was merely an excessively doting parent. With the passage of years, the incident that had taken place between her father and Lorinda had faded from people’s memories, and among those old enough to recall it, none were so unkind as to relate it to his daughter.
Emma was now a young matron, married to Wiger, one of the apprentices in her father’s armoury, the ownership of which had, in due course, passed down to Robert after the death of his sire. She had not, unfortunately, inherited her mother’s beauty, except for a pair of lustrous green eyes, the colour of a newly budded leaf in spring. She was plain-featured, tall and a bit ungainly, with an angular frame that was sparsely fleshed, and, unfortunately, had unsightly pockmarks on her face, scars left by a near-fatal contraction of pox she had suffered during her childhood. But she was very much in love with her new husband, and the only blight upon her life was her inability to conceive a child.
Her companion was Constance Turner, a perfumer in the town, who had agreed to walk with her friend the scant two miles to St. Dunstan’s shrine, which lay along a track that branched off Ermine Street and led to the village of Burton. Once there, Emma intended to implore the saint to cure her barrenness.
“I am certain that St. Dunstan will heed your prayer, Emma,” Constance said as they turned onto the path that led to the shrine. “He is the patron saint of armourers, after all, and has been known to look with favour on all who ply the trade.”
“Yes, I should have gone to him before,” Emma replied. “Month after month I have kept hoping I would find myself with child, but it has been almost two years now since Wiger and I were wed, and still there is no sign of a babe.”
She turned towards her companion, her green eyes sparkling with hopeful anticipation. “It was my father who suggested that I seek St. Dunstan’s aid. He said my mother often came here in the early days of their marriage, just after he had inherited the armoury from my grandsire and was full of doubts about his competency to run it. It was because of her pleas, he said, that he prospered and made such a success of the business, and he thought that with Wiger soon to finish his apprenticeship and become an armourer, too, the saint may look upon me with the same kindness he showed my dam . . .”
She broke off, saddened by the absence of her long-dead mother. “Oh, Constance, how I wish that she was with me still. I have never missed her more than I do now. What shall I do if St. Dunstan will not help me?”
Her friend laid a hand consolingly on Emma’s arm. “You must not be downhearted, Emma; you are still young and there is plenty of time.”
Constance sent up a prayer of her own that the saint would hear Emma’s plea. They had been friends for over two years, since just before Emma’s marriage to Wiger. A silly quarrel a few months ago had left them estranged for a while, and the perfumer had been gratified and truly honoured when Emma had turned up at her house a few days ago and asked if she would come with her to the shrine.
“I have no female relatives left alive,” she had said to Constance, “and it is only fitting that a woman accompanies me. We were good friends once—can we be so again? I would dearly welcome your presence.” The perfumer had readily given her assent, and it had been arranged that Emma would go yesterday to Constance’s home—which was situated much closer to Newport Arch than the armoury—and stay the night so they could leave early this morning.
As they followed the track that led to the little dell where the shrine was located, the noise of the wheeled carts on the main thoroughfare slowly faded, replaced by birdsong and the rustling of small animals in the undergrowth. It was a pleasant walk, and Constance could feel Emma’s tension ease as they approached the sanctuary.
The shrine was a small one, built decades before by a grateful blacksmith who, it was said, had been saved from death by the saint on this very spot. The story went that the blacksmith had been on his way home to Burton in the midst of a howling snowstorm when he realised he was being stalked by a pair of wolves. In a desperate effort to increase his pace, he had not noticed a tree root buried under the snow and, tripping over it, had fallen to the ground and wrenched his ankle so badly that he could not stand. The wolves, sensing his weakness, began to circle, preparing to launch their attack. The only weapon the blacksmith possessed had been his hammer, which he had been carrying with other small tools in a sack slung on his back. Calling upon his patron saint to help him, he retrieved the hammer and used it to defend himself when the wolves leapt upon him. Within moments the blacksmith found, to his astonishment, that his weapon had rung true and both animals were lying dead at his feet, their skulls crushed by the desperate blows he had rained upon them. His heart full of grateful thanks for his delivery, he vowed to use the bounty he would receive for the wolves’ heads to build a shrine dedicated to his protector in the little dell where he had been so miraculously saved.
The stones on which the blacksmith had built the small altar were now weathered and pitted with age, but the small metal figure of the saint that the blacksmith had crafted and placed on top of the stones remained bright through regular polishing by the inhabitants of Burton. A wooden shelter, which the villagers also refurbished every year, protected the figure. St. Dunstan’s face was serene in aspect and, as the two women approached, it seemed as though his blank eyes regarded them with kindness.
Looking up at the tiny chapel, Emma and Constance could see that horseshoes had been affixed to the edges of the shelter. St. Dunstan, who had been an abbot, twice a bishop, and finally archbishop of Canterbury in his long lifetime, had once, so it was said, nailed a horseshoe to the Devil’s hoof as a reprisal for trying to tempt him, and so horseshoes were considered to be his talisman. A variety of wildflowers—vetches, bellflowers, eglantine and foxgloves—raised their faces to the sky around the edge of the little dell and the air was full of the spicy smell of gilliflowers, which grew in profusion near the shrine.
As the two women walked into the pool of sunshine that flooded the spot, they heard a croaking sound from the branches of a nearby tree and looked up to see a large raven staring down at them. On a branch above was another one, presumably its mate. Close to the bole of the tree was their nest, built of sticks and twigs, and the heads and beaks of two or three of their offspring, not yet fledglings, could be seen just above the rim.
“That’s a good sign, Emma,” Constance said, pointing to the hatchlings. “The ravens have had babbies; perhaps it is an omen that you will too.”
“Oh, how I hope so,” Emma replied. “My father told me that the ravens are the guardians of the shrine and that there has been a pair nesting here ever since it was built.” After giving Constance’s fingers an excited squeeze, she took a step towards the shrine and removed a small silver horseshoe from the pocket in her gown. Her father had forged it himself and had it blessed by the parish priest for her to give as an offering to the saint. Placing it at the foot of the altar, she knelt down and bowed her head in prayer, hands with palms together in front of her. To give her privacy, Constance moved back a few paces to stand by the gilliflowers.
As she waited while her friend murmured her fervent plea, the perfumer noticed that the little dell had suddenly fallen silent. The rustlings of small animals had ceased, as had the birdsong. She glanced up and saw that both of the ravens, heads turned to one side, were staring intently into the woods on the other side of the clearing with their beady black eyes. Nervously she began to move back towards the shrine, glancing in that direction as she did so.
The dell seemed unnaturally still and she felt a tingle up her spine. As she opened her mouth to call out an alarm to Emma, there was a sudden eruption of movement from the trees and a figure clad in a rough cloak leapt from the greenwood and ran towards the shrine. The intruder’s mantle had a cowl which was fastened tightly over his head so his features could not be seen and in his hand the blade of a knife glittered. He made no sound as he rushed towards Emma, the weapon held aloft. Before Constance could utter a scream of warning, the knife was thrust into her friend’s back and blood spurted. As Emma fell forward onto her face, her attacker struck at her once more and then, with a swift movement, darted towards Constance. She turned to run, but he grabbed her arm, and even though she pulled and twisted with all her might, she was unable to wrench herself free. Suddenly, as he raised the knife to strike her, the air was filled with a whirring sound and the two ravens, croaking harshly, dived at her assailant’s head. He let out a fearful scream of pain as their sharp beaks struck his pate, and he dropped the knife as he frantically tried to beat them off with his hands. But the birds were relentless, continuing to swerve and dart around him until he was forced to flee back into the forest. The ravens did not cease their pursuit, however. Flying above the tops of the trees, they followed his progress, croaking loudly all the while.
Constance watched fearfully until the ravens’ cries grew faint with distance and then hastened to the fallen figure of her friend.
The blood from the wounds in Emma’s back had stopped flowing, a bad sign, Constance knew, for it meant that her heart had stopped beating. Dropping to her knees, she gently turned the body over and pushed back the coif that bound her friend’s pale brown hair. No sign of breath came from Emma’s nose or mouth, and her lovely eyes were open and vacant, staring unseeing at the roof of the shrine.
Constance began to cry, tears dropping unbidden as she tried to take in what had happened, until a small sound nearby caused her to spin around in renewed alarm. But it was only the ravens gliding softly back into the dell, flying up to their perch on the branch of the tree where they had their nest. Both sat silent and unmoving, regarding her solemnly.
Comforted by their presence, and feeling protected, Constance turned back to her friend. With heartfelt sobs, she clasped one of Emma’s limp hands to her bosom and begged the saint to watch over her passage to heaven.
Her prayer finished, Constance rose shakily and tried to steady her racing heart. Normally levelheaded, and priding herself on her ability for rational thought, she now found that panic was threatening to overwhelm her. Taking deep breaths, she looked around the dell. The encircling trees were still and there was no sign of movement anywhere. She glanced up at the ravens perched above her; both seemed to be on guard, turning their heads from side to side as they scanned the perimeter of the open space. She must get help, she knew, and the village of Burton was not as far a distance as going back to Ermine Street. But she was fearful of going alone in either direction—what if Emma’s assailant was lurking in the greenwood?
Undecided, she stood for a few moments and then noticed the glimmer of metal in the grass. It was the dagger the murderer had dropped. With repugnance, she went over and picked it up. Her friend’s blood was smeared on the blade and she almost dropped it when her fingers touched the gore. She did not know how to use such a weapon but felt she would be safer if she had it, and so, with resolution, she grasped the handle of the knife firmly, took a deep breath and then ran as fast as she could down the track that led to Burton.
* * *
It was past midday by the time Constance finally arrived back in Lincoln with Emma’s body. When she had reached the village, heart beating wildly, she had run through the open gate in the wooden palisade that enclosed the compound. The hamlet was of moderate size, comprising over a dozen small thatched cots, a barn, a cowshed and a tiny church. Several women were inside, some plying spindles, others just gossiping, and a few small children were playing near the well that sat in the middle of the open space. Beyond the palisade, men were at work in fields of wheat and barley. Constance had run towards the woman closest to her, a young matron testing the dampness of rags that had been laid out to dry on top of a few red currant bushes, and blurted out what had happened.
“My friend has been killed and the murderer may still be nearby. Please help me; I am in fear for my life.”
She had not stopped to think of the spectacle she presented—a bloody knife in her hand, her coif all askew and her pale blue kirtle stained with dirt where she had knelt on the ground beside Emma. The young woman, startled, had taken one look at her and begun to scream, and all the other women had come running. Belatedly realising the cause of the young goodwife’s fear, Constance had thrown the knife away from her. “I am not come to harm you, but for help,” she pleaded. “My friend, she is dead . . . dead . . . and I do not know what to do.”
One of the other women, older and more sensible than the rest, went over to a small bell attached to a nearby post and rang it firmly, and then approached Constance. Reaching down slowly, and keeping her eyes on the strange woman who had burst into their midst, she picked up the bloody dagger and, swiftly wrapping it in one of the clean rags from her neighbour’s washing, tucked it in the pocket of her kirtle.
“The alarum will bring the men in from the fields, mistress,” she said quietly. “Until then, come and tell our priest what has happened.”
Things had moved quickly after that. The priest, an elderly cleric, had taken her into the small village church, sat her on a stool and given her a glass of watered ale and then listened without speaking while she told her tale. Soon another man had come in; he was of middle years, said his name was Rudd and that he was reeve, the headman, of the village. The priest repeated her story and Rudd went out again to send a few of the younger and more stalwart men of the village to search the greenwood for Emma’s attacker.
By the time he returned to tell her there was no sign of any stranger nearby, Constance had regained her composure, and had listened calmly as Rudd told her that Emma’s body had been brought to the village and that he and one of his sons would take it in a cart to Lincoln.
“You had best come with us, mistress,” he added, with a suspicious glance at her, “and accompany me while I report this crime to the sheriff. There is only your witness to account for how your friend came to die.”
The journey did not take long, but it was a rough one, and they went by a route that was different from the one she and Emma had taken. Instead of going south to the shrine, the reeve had guided the cart to the north-east on a track that was little more than a footpath. It had debouched onto Ermine Street much farther north from Lincoln than was necessary, but Constance made no demur for she was still too shocked to wonder at the significance. Nor did she consider the reason that the village priest had blessed the ox and cart with holy water before they left Burton, deeming it merely a ritual designed to comfort the soul of her dead friend. Later, she was to remember both incidents with horror, but for the moment, she did not pay them much heed.
The ox that was drawing the wain was an elderly beast with a lumbering gait, and as she sat in the back of the cart cradling Emma’s head in her lap it had bumped and swerved alarmingly. Rudd’s son sat beside her as they lurched along, watching her every movement while keeping the knife the murderer had used, still wrapped in a rag, firmly clasped in his hand. With dismay, she realised that the reeve, and all the other villagers, suspected that it might have been she who killed Emma. Throughout the short journey, she prayed constantly that she would be able to prove her innocence.
When the reeve drove the cart through Newport Arch, the town lay spread out below, for Lincoln was built on a knoll, with the castle and the Minster sharing the height of the apex. As the reeve guided the wain the short distance to the castle gate, Constance was reminded how little time had elapsed since she and Emma had passed by the fortress that morning on their way to the shrine. They had set out on their short journey with hope and in high spirits, and now, just a few hours later, Emma was dead. It was hard not to believe it had all been a nightmare from which she would soon awake.
The castle gateward, when Rudd told him the reason they had come, quickly waved them through and called for his serjeant, a grizzled veteran named Ernulf.
After directing the gateward to take the cart bearing Emma’s body to a sheltered spot beside the stables, the serjeant told Rudd that the sheriff, Gerard Camville, was away from Lincoln and that his wife, Nicolaa de la Haye, the hereditary castellan of Lincoln castle, was deputising for her husband until he returned.
“I’ll go and tell Lady Nicolaa what has passed,” Ernulf said to the reeve. “Wait here until I return.”
* * *
A short time later, Constance and Rudd were standing in the hall of the keep before the castellan. A woman of small stature and slightly plump, and one who was much revered by the townsfolk of Lincoln for her fairness and compassion, Lady Nicolaa was sitting at the table on the dais when they entered. Beside her was a lad of about sixteen years of age with a pen in his hand and a few pieces of parchment laid in front of him. Constance had seen the castellan before, but only from a distance, and she recognized the clerk as the mute Sicilian youngster named Gianni who was employed in the castle scriptorium, and well-known in the town.
Servants were bustling to and fro, some sweeping rushes, others trimming candles and one pair carrying a keg of ale to the back of the hall as Constance and the reeve approached the dais. All of them cast curious glances in their direction as they went to stand in front of Lady Nicolaa.
When the castellan asked about the body of the young woman that had been brought to the castle, Rudd, in halting tones, said that she had been murdered, slain in the dell close to his village where St. Dunstan’s shrine was located. He then added that he had been told by the woman he had brought with him, Mistress Turner, that the victim’s name was Emma Ferroner, and that she was the daughter of a prominent armourer in the town.
“Stabbed in the back twice, she was, lady, and, according to Mistress Turner here”—the reeve gestured in Constance’s direction—“the deed were done while she was praying. Then Mistress Turner ran to our village for help and I sent some men to scour the woods for the murderer, but we didn’t find him. Then me and my son brought the poor young woman’s body here along with Mistress Turner. This here’s the knife what was used to kill her,” he added, brandishing it aloft. “Mistress Turner was holding it when she came to our village.”
Nicolaa nodded at his succinct explanation and asked him to hand the blade to her clerk. While the lad was unwrapping the rag that covered it, the castellan turned her pale, slightly protuberant blue eyes on Constance. “So you were with the victim when she was killed?” she asked.
“I was, lady,” Constance replied. “He tried to stab me, too, but the ravens at the shrine drove him off.”
“Ravens?” Nicolaa said, her delicate eyebrows drawing into a surprised arch. “You say the assailant was chased away by birds?”
The reeve interjected and said, “There’s allus been a pair of ravens guarding the shrine, lady, ever since I was a lad and before, so ’tis said. They never leave, not even in winter, and we puts out bits of suet and other scraps for them to feed on if snow comes.”
“And how did you come into possession of the weapon?” Nicolaa asked Constance.
“The murderer dropped it when the ravens attacked him,” the perfumer replied, “so I picked it up to defend myself in case he was still in the greenwood while I ran to get help.”
Nicolaa leaned back in her chair. A strange tale, she thought. It was not beyond the bounds of possibility that the ravens would defend the saint’s shrine. Had not these very same birds stood guard over the huge fortress in London ever since William the Conqueror had built it two centuries before? The same species had also, she remembered, protected the body of St. Vincent of Saragossa from being devoured by wild animals after he had been executed, and had stayed for many decades to keep watch over the shrine on his grave. But these instances, and others, had been witnessed by many people, while the tale she had just been told had been overlooked by only one person, the young woman standing in front of her.
She took a moment to regard the perfumer. She was handsome rather than pretty, with a wide mouth that held a promise of sensuality and intelligent hazel eyes. Nicolaa recalled that Mistress Turner had, a couple of years previously, been involved in another case of murder when her servant had given information that had helped to catch the man who had cruelly slain a prostitute. Was it coincidence that she was once again peripherally embroiled in another killing, or was her tale a fabrication to cover up her own guilt?
The castellan, wishing to learn more before she pursued these thoughts, decided she would leave the question for the time being and spoke to her clerk. “Gianni, bring me the knife so that I may examine it.”
The lad quickly got to his feet, came down from the dais, retrieved the dagger and laid it on the table in front of his mistress. The blade was long and narrow and bore smudged traces of blood, as did the rag in which it had been wrapped. There was a thin rim of grime embedded in the join of the hilt that looked as though it had been there some time. Although sharp and sturdy, it was plainly made and inexpensive, a household or workman’s tool such as would be sold at any of the ironmongers’ stalls in Lincoln. At a nod from his mistress, Gianni carefully turned the weapon over once or twice so that she could see both sides of the blade and hilt. There was nothing remarkable about it.
Nicolaa thanked him and then looked at Constance. “Tell me how you and your friend came to be at the shrine, what happened when the attack took place and anything else you witnessed that may be of importance.”
Feeling herself under a vigilant scrutiny from those seemingly innocuous pale blue eyes, and the shadow of doubt that had appeared when she had told how the ravens had saved her, Constance nervously related why Emma had wanted to go to the sanctuary and how it came about that she had accompanied her.
“Emma had been married two years and not yet become enceinte,” Constance explained, “and because both her father and husband are armourers, she thought that if she prayed to their patron saint he might help her conceive a child.”
Tears came unbidden to her eyes as she recalled how optimistic her friend had been, but she stifled them as she continued, “Emma and I were friends, and as she had no female relatives and wanted a woman to be with her, she asked me if I would go. Emma lives—lived—with her husband in quarters at her father’s house, next to the armoury, which is just outside the lower end of town on the Witham River, and a far distance to walk to the shrine. To save time, she stayed in my house last night and we left at first light to go to the dell.”
Constance paused for a moment, collecting her thoughts. Looking straight at Nicolaa, and hoping she would not be disbelieved, she took a deep breath before she went on. “We had just reached the shrine, and Emma had knelt to pray, when a man burst from the trees and plunged that knife into her back. I turned to run, but he seized my arm and I believe he would have killed me too if it hadn’t been for the ravens. Just as he was raising the knife to stab me they flew at him, pecking at his head and face. He dropped the weapon and ran, and they chased him into the woods.”
“Did you recognise him?” Nicolaa asked.
Constance shook her head. “He had a hood on his head that was pulled down low, and some sort of wrapping over his chin so I could not see any part of his face except his eyes. They were a dark brown in colour and full of anger.” She shivered in remembrance of the terrifying moment.
“And his build—was he tall or short, thin or well fleshed?”
After a moment’s thought, Constance said, “He must have been only of middling height, lady, for he did not tower over me when he grabbed my arm, so was most likely only a handspan taller than myself. As to his girth—it was hard to tell under the cloak, but I would judge he was slender.”
“Could you see anything of the clothes he was wearing? And if there was anything distinctive about them?”
Again Constance shook her head. “The mantle he wore was of brown homespun, but the swathe of it covered the whole of his body down to the knees, so it was impossible to see any of his other garments.”