When royal commissioners of William the Conqueror, Ralph Delchard and Gervase Bret, arrive in the city to preside over local land disputes, their proceedings are immediately hampered by the death of a key participant: Picard.
With Picard’s wife and mistress, as well as the wife of the former owner of the estate, staking their claim to the land, Delchard and Bret wonder whose greed has driven them to kill. But the root of the mystery lies far deeper than mere avarice.
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Brother Simon was in great distress. He led such a spiritual existence and devoted himself so wholeheartedly to the Rule of St Benedict that he hoped to shed the inconvenience of bodily functions and float in a more cerebral sphere. It was not to be. He was shackled to the physical world and could not escape its dictates. The wants of nature had to be satisfied on a daily basis. Within the enclave, where his routine was supremely ordered, it was a simple enough matter to slip off to the latrines at given moments. When he was dragged into lay company and forced to travel across three whole counties, it was a different matter. Embarrassment quickly turned into humiliation. When a female was present a species which Brother Simon regarded with fear and distaste his humiliation became a continuous ordeal.
Fortunately, the understanding Canon Hubert was there to help. 'Where are you going, Brother Simon?' he enquired.
'For a walk, Canon Hubert.'
'A long walk?'
'I fear that it may be so.'
'Do not rush back on our account.'
'I will keep the others distracted.'
'You are very kind, Canon Hubert.'
'Even a saint has to take an occasional walk,' said Hubert in his homiletic vein. 'It is the Lord's way of reminding us that we are human and, as such, subject to human restraints. Do not be ashamed, Brother Simon. You merely walk where apostles have walked before you.'
Simon's walk was moreof a frightened scamper into the bushes than an apostolic saunter. Hubert smiled and looked across at the others. There were eighteen of them. They had broken their journey to rest and take refreshment. Ralph Delchard, the leading commissioner, had brought his wife, Golde, on the expedition. Gervase Bret, his young friend and colleague, lent the commission legal expertise and it had been given further authority by the addition of Hervey de Marigny, a Norman baron with extensive holdings in Derbyshire. Eight knights from Ralph's personal retinue acted as a bodyguard and the escort was swelled by the six soldiers whom de Marigny had called into service.
None of them had seen the emaciated monk disappearing and Hubert wanted to make sure that Simon's absence went unnoticed. The latter had already suffered some jovial mockery at the hands of the escort and Ralph took a pleasure in bringing a blush to the pale cheeks of their scribe. Canon Hubert saw it as his duty to protect his fellow Benedictine from as much sniggering as he could. He waddled across to the others and lowered his bulk gingerly down on to the trunk of a fallen tree.
'How much further, my lord?' he asked Ralph.
'Put that question to Hervey,' suggested the other. 'He has been in Devon before and I have not. If it were left to me, I would not be visiting this county now, but the King must be obeyed.'
'We have already spent far too long in the saddle.'
'There speaks a man of God,' observed Ralph with a chuckle. 'Had you been a soldier like Hervey and me, you would be used to spending a whole day astride your horse. The worst that you have to suffer is an ache in the knees from all that prayer. Hervey and I had blisters in much more testing places.'
'True,' agreed de Marigny. 'We spent so much time in the saddle that we felt like centaurs. But it was all to good effect in the end. With God's good grace and Duke William's inspired leadership, we conquered this beautiful island.'
'Parts of it,' corrected Gervase. 'Wales and Scotland are not subdued.'
'Not wholly,' conceded Ralph. 'But they will be.'
'I beg leave to doubt that.'
Ralph grinned. 'You lawyers must quibble over details.'
'To answer your question, Canon Hubert,' said de Marigny with a glance up at the sky, 'we should arrive in Exeter well before nightfall.'
'Thank you, my lord. What shall we expect to find?'
'A warm welcome for weary travellers.'
'I was really asking what sort of place Exeter was.'
Hervey de Marigny shrugged. 'Then the truthful answer is that I do not know. It is almost twenty years since I was last in Devon and places can change much in that length of time. I was part of the army which besieged Exeter for eighteen days before it finally capitulated. The Saxons of Devon were doughty fighters and clever politicians. The King had to make several concessions before the gates of the city were opened to him. That did not please the Conqueror.'
He went on to give them a concise account of the siege and its main consequences. They listened with interest. Hervey de Marigny was not a typical soldier. There was no arrogance in his manner and he did not lapse into the boastful reminiscences which so many Norman barons enjoyed. He talked quietly and honestly, acknowledging the qualities of worthy foes and showing a respect for their customs. A stout man of middle height, he was shrunken by age and his hair was peppered with silver, but he retained all his faculties and would patently be an asset when he sat alongside the others in the commission.
He was such an amiable man that he had befriended everyone in the short time they had been together. Golde had developed a real fondness for de Marigny. He was courteous, attentive and genuinely interested in her. Canon Hubert and Brother Simon were strongly opposed to the idea of including her in the party, but de Marigny believed that she added a sparkle to the company and helped to soften the unthinking coarseness of soldierly banter. Golde looked forward to spending more time with the new commissioner when they reached their destination.
'How long will we stay in Devon?' she asked.
'Too long!' grumbled Ralph.
'A week? Two? Three?'
'Who knows, Golde? The size of our task is daunting. Our predecessors identified over a hundred estates with contested ownership. It will take us an age to sit in judgement on all of them. We may well be here for a month. A year. A decade even.'
'Ralph exaggerates,' said Gervase. 'If we are expeditious, we should dispatch our business in a couple of weeks. And we must do so,' he stressed. 'An important matter awaits me in Winchester.'
Golde smiled. 'Alys is much more than an important matter,' she scolded playfully. 'You make your marriage to her sound like yet another assignment.'
'Why, so it is,' said Ralph jocularly. 'Gervase will approach his wedding day with the same zeal which he displays as a commissioner. Alys is one more case which comes before him for judgement, when they stand at the altar, he will deal justly with her.'
'He will love and honour her,' chided Golde.
'Indeed, I will,' said Gervase seriously. 'But first, I have to return to Winchester in time for the wedding. Alys will feel neither loved nor honoured if I am trapped in Devon and she is left standing alone at the altar.'
'We will do our utmost to oblige you, Gervase,' said de Marigny.
'Yes,' said Ralph, taking charge. 'The sooner we get to Exeter, the better. I have no wish to stay in this benighted county a moment longer than I have to. Mount up, friends! We will set off. Canon Hubert?'
'My lord?' said the other.
'Go and retrieve Brother Simon from the bushes. He has had time enough to lift his skirts and place a holy sacrament on the ground.'
Hubert bristled. 'That is blasphemous!'
'Then tell him to desist from blasphemy.'
'Your comment was profane, my lord.'
'And quite uncalled for,' said Golde softly.
'Then I withdraw the remark at once,' offered Ralph cheerily. 'Fetch our scribe from his prayers, Canon Hubert, and we will ride on.'
At that moment, Brother Simon emerged furtively from the bushes. Hoping to attract no attention, he was horrified to find every pair of eyes in the whole party turned upon him. Some faces were merely curious but others bore a knowing leer. Simon was mortified. His cheeks turned crimson, prickly heat broke out all over his body and he fled back into the bushes as if pursued by the hounds of hell.
Baldwin the Sheriff was in a testy mood. Instead of being able to enjoy a day's hunting, he was forced to remain in the castle to lead the inquiry into the murder of Nicholas Picard. He was curt with the first witness he examined.
'What is your name?' he asked.
'Walter Baderon, my lord sheriff.'
'You were on duty in the city last evening?'
'At the North Gate?'
'Yes, my lord sheriff.'
'Then you must have seen the murder victim leave.'
'I believe that I did.'
'Believe!' snapped Baldwin. 'You only believe? Give me no beliefs, sir. I want the facts of the case, quickly and honestly. Did you or did you not observe Nicholas Picard when he left Exeter by the North Gate?'
'Yes, my lord sheriff.'
'At what time was this?'
'I am not sure.'
'Why not?' roared the sheriff, slapping the table with an angry palm for emphasis. 'Were you drunk? Had you fallen asleep? Did you desert your post? What excuse do you have to offer for your incompetence?'
Walter Baderon took a deep breath before answering. He had been hauled out of bed to face the interrogation and was still not fully awake when he arrived. The sheriff's ire concentrated his mind. Baderon was a stocky man of middle height in the helm and hauberk of a Norman knight. Even though he was seated, the intimidating figure of the sheriff seemed to loom over the man who stood before him.
'Well?' prompted Baldwin.
'I was at my post, my lord sheriff, alert and watchful.'
'Then tell me when the lord Nicholas went past you.'
'Light was fading,' recalled the other. 'I waved to him as he rode out through the gate but he was too deep in thought to acknowledge my greeting. The bell for Compline soon began to ring.'
'Now we are getting somewhere!'
'But that is all I can tell you.'
'There is more to be squeezed out of you yet,' said Baldwin grimly. 'You say that he was deep in thought. Could you discern the nature of those thoughts from his expression? Did he seem worried? Afraid? Rueful? Was he in a hurry to quit the city?'
'No, my lord sheriff. He seemed pleased about something.'
'He was smiling to himself.'
Baldwin sat back and pondered, drumming his fingers on the table.
'Do you know why I sent for you?' he said at length.
'I think so, my lord sheriff.'
'If you watched Nicholas Picard ride out through North Gate, you may well have been the last person who saw him alive. Apart from his killer, that is. Was anyone following him?'
'No, he was quite alone.'
'Did anyone leave the city soon afterwards?'
'Not by the North Gate.'
'Let us go through it once more,' said Baldwin, sensing that the man might be holding something back. 'When did you come on duty?'
'When the bell was ringing for Vespers.'
'Describe what happened between then and the time when Nicholas Picard rode past you with a smile on his face. And, Walter Baderon ...'
'Yes, my lord sheriff?'
'Tell me the truth.'
The warning was accompanied by a long, searching stare. Baderon remained calm. He told the sheriff most of what he could remember and embellished the bare facts with a few significant details. Baldwin listened intently and frequently interrupted. When the interrogation was over, he dismissed his witness with a brief nod, then reviewed the evidence he had gathered. He was not left alone for long. There was a tap on the door and his steward entered.
'My apologies for disturbing you, my lord sheriff,' he said.
'What is it, Joscelin?'
'The royal commissioners.'
'They have arrived already?'
'No, my lord sheriff, but they may be here at any moment. Their apartments are ready and the town reeve is standing by to await their orders. I wondered if there had been any change of plan.'
'Change of plan?'
'Yes,' said Joscelin smoothly. 'You bade me organise a feast here at the castle to welcome them to Exeter. I have set everything in motion. But this murder investigation now claims your attention. Do you wish me to postpone the banquet? Or shall we hold it and apologise to them for your absence?'
'Neither. I will be at the head of my table to welcome my guests.'
'Yes, my lord sheriff.'
'This murder is an unfortunate business but it should not delay me long. I have every confidence that the killer can be tracked down with due celerity. With luck,' he continued, 'I may even have the villain behind bars before Ralph Delchard and his colleagues reach Exeter. I want them to see what a law-abiding city we have here. That is why the stain of murder must be removed as swiftly as possible. Prepare the feast!'
'Everything is in hand, my lord sheriff.'
Joscelin the Steward gave a faint bow and withdrew.
They made good time and came within first sight of the city sooner than they expected. Ralph Delchard and Hervey de Marigny rode at the head of the cavalcade, exchanging memories of battles in which they had fought and mutual friends whom they had lost in combat. Canon Hubert and the suffering Brother Simon were at the rear of the column as it wended its way along, grateful that the soldiers in front of them had at last tired of making ribald comments about Simon's disappearance into the bushes. Golde rode behind her husband and alongside Gervase Bret. She was keen to discuss his forthcoming wedding.
'It has been a long betrothal,' she noted.
'Far too long!' he sighed. 'Had it been my decision, we should have been married six months or more ago.'
'Did Alys resist that suggestion?'
'She did not but her parents did. They felt that we needed more time to get to know each other properly.'
'That is sound advice,' said Golde. 'Not that I heeded it myself. Ralph and I were too impatient to wait until we knew each other better. We married as soon as we could, but then we had no parents to hold us in check. Your case is different, Gervase. You will not be as reckless as we were.'
'More's the pity!' he said. 'If recklessness leads to the kind of marriage that you and Ralph enjoy, then I wish that I had taken Alys to the altar within a week of meeting her.'
'Ralph and I were fortunate.'
'And well-suited. Like Alys and me.'
'Not exactly, Gervase,' she said with a wistful smile. 'We had both been married before, remember. We have a past. You and Alys still have the freshness of youth and the joy of innocence.'
He raised an ironic eyebrow. 'That is not what I would call it.'
They shared a laugh. Golde was strongly drawn to Gervase. Conversations with him were not only a pleasure, they were usually conducted in her native tongue. Born of a Saxon mother and a Breton father, Gervase was able to speak both languages fluently and he had been a patient tutor to Golde as she tried to master the Norman French spoken by her husband.
'What do you hope from your marriage?' she wondered.
'What everyone hopes for, Golde love, happiness and children.'
'Ralph and I have found two of those. The third, alas, eludes us. But that is God's will and we accept it. Besides,' she added, glancing at her husband, 'Ralph is like a big child at times so I am able to mother him.'
'I will not tell him that you said that.'
'He would not be offended if you did. Do you miss Alys?'
'It will make your reunion all the sweeter.'
'I hope so,' said Gervase. 'But I would sooner fret away the time before our wedding in Winchester than in Devon. I have a strange feeling that I will somehow be detained here against my will. Alys would be livid.'
'At first, perhaps,' said Golde. 'Any bride would chafe in such trying circumstances. But I am sure that Alys would understand and make due allowance. She knows the importance of your work and appreciates the honour which is bestowed upon you by the King.'
'I would prefer a little less honour and a little more time in Winchester,' said Gervase. 'No sooner do I return to the city than we are dispatched on a new assignment.'
'That is a sign of the King's faith in you.'
'My absences put a strain on our betrothal.'
'That strain will soon end, Gervase,' she assured him. 'In a month's time, you and Alys will be living in wedded bliss with no thought of the frustrations which you endured beforehand.'
'That is my dearest wish.'
'There is only one decison you will have to make.'
'What is that?'
'The same decision which confronted Ralph and me. If the call comes once more from the King as assuredly it will do you leave your wife at home or take her with you? I was only too eager to come with Ralph. But what of Alys?' she probed. 'Would she put up with a long ride to Exeter in order to be close to her husband?'
'Have you discussed it with her?'
'Not yet, Golde, but I know what her choice would be.' Gervase fell silent, doubting the confidence in his own reply. A new anxiety assailed him. What if Alys refused to travel with him and the others to distant shires of the realm? She was not as robust a woman as Golde nor as seasoned a rider. It would galling if he finally married her, only to continue their regular periods of separation. It all served to increase his anxiety to return to Winchester as soon as possible.
Ralph and his companion were more concerned with the work which awaited them in Exeter than a marriage which lay beyond it. Hervey de Marigny was the oldest of the commissioners but the least experienced.
'You will have to guide me, Ralph,' he said.
'There will be little need of that.'
'You and the others are veterans. I am a novice. What must I do?'
'Look and listen,' advised Ralph. 'You will soon pick up the rudiments of our trade. We are here to sit in judgement and to collect taxes. That means we shall be very unpopular.'
'I am used to that. It is in the nature of conquest. After twenty years, the Saxons still do not accept us.'
'It is not the Saxon population who cause the problems,' warned Ralph with a faint grimace. 'It is our fellow Normans. Devon has more than its share of robber barons, Hervey. We must call them to account.'
'A final reckoning?'
'Indeed. A Domesday Book.'
They skirted a copse and crested a rise to be given their best and most striking view of their destination. Exeter was a handsome, prosperous, compact city, encircled by a high wall above which the tower of its cathedral, the massive fortifications of its castle and the roofs of its taller buildings rose with evident pride. Situated on the River Exe, it occupied a strategic position and was easily defended from attack. Seeing it so close once more reminded de Marigny of his earlier visit.
'There is something I did not mention,' he said, keeping his voice low so that nobody but Ralph could hear him. 'An aspect of the siege too indelicate to discuss in front of Golde and Canon Hubert.'
'Go on,' urged Ralph.
'The reason they held out for so long was that they were emboldened by the presence of Gytha, mother of their late king, Harold.'
'Earl Harold. He was no king but a vile usurper.'
'The Saxons recognised him as their monarch and his mother shared in the lustre of his name. They flocked to her banner accordingly.'
'A forlorn enterprise.'
'Give them their due, Ralph,' said the other. 'They held us at bay for eighteen days and might have done so even longer had we not come to composition. But what I felt too improper to recall earlier was this. One of those hairy Saxons was bolder than the rest.'
'What did he do?'
'Mounted the ramparts to show his defiance to our army.'
'In what way?'
'He lowered his breeches, bared his buttocks and let out such a fart of contempt that it was heard a mile away.'
Ralph was torn between anger at the insult and amusement at the sheer bravado of the man. He found it difficult not to laugh.
'Was the rogue caught and punished?'
'I do not know, Ralph.'
'Farting at the King? He should have been soundly whipped for his effrontery.' He began to shake with mirth. 'Then given a second beating for his backsidery. It was a savage weapon to use against us.'
The two of them laughed all the way to Exeter.
Joscelin the Steward prided himself on his efficiency. Tall and slim, he cut an elegant figure as he glided around the castle to check on the preparations for the guests. He was relatively young to hold such a position still in his late twenties but he discharged his varied duties with a quiet industry that left no room for complaint. Baldwin de Moeles, sheriff of Devon, came to rely on his steward more and more, delegating tasks to him which would normally have been outside his remit. Joscelin coped admirably with all that was thrown at him. No matter how onerous the work that was piled upon him, he managed to retain his poise and good humour.
He was in the kitchen when the guests arrived. As soon as he caught a glimpse of them through the window, he abandoned his inspection and headed for the courtyard. Ralph and the others had dismounted. Relieved to be out of the saddle at last, they were stretching their legs and taking stock of their surroundings. Joscelin sailed across to them, surveying the company as he did so and forming a favourable impression of them. There was a sense of order and discipline about them which was apparent even at a cursory glance.
'Welcome to Exeter, my lord!' he said, identifying Ralph Delchard as the obvious leader and heading for him. 'I am Joscelin the Steward and I will see to all your needs while you are here in the city.'
'Thank you,' said Ralph. He introduced his wife, Gervase Bret and Hervey de Marigny before indicating the two monks. 'Canon Hubert and Brother Simon will sit with us on the commission but they will not lay their heads beneath the same roof. They will be staying as guests of Bishop Osbern and would appreciate a guide to take them to their host.'
Joscelin flicked his fingers and a servant trotted across to him to receive his instructions. After bidding farewell, Hubert and Simon rode out of the castle on the heels of the servant. Another gesture from the steward brought a soldier to his side. The man was told to take charge of the escort, to see to the stabling of their horses and to show them to their lodging. In less than a minute, Joscelin had cleared the courtyard of all but Golde and the three commissioners. Ralph was struck by his easy authority and imperturbable manner.
'I hope that we meet with the same willing co-operation from everyone in this county,' he said with a grin.
'Do not count on that, my lord,' said Joscelin tactfully. 'Commissioners from the King mean taxes on property. You may encounter resistance.'
'That is nothing new, my friend. We are inured to it.'
'What manner of man is the town reeve?' asked de Marigny.
'Saewin?' said the steward. 'He is a good man and a diligent reeve. Saewin also has another distinction. He is one of the few Saxons in whom you can place absolute trust.'
'Take care what you say,' warned Ralph with a jovial nudge. 'My wife is the daughter of a Saxon thegn and Gervase here, too, has Saxon blood in his veins. They will take you to task for any aspersions you may cast upon their forebears.'
'I meant no disrespect,' said the other calmly, 'but you must remember our history. Exeter was the site of a major rebellion soon after we took possession of this island.'
'I know it well,' said de Marigny with a nostalgic grin. 'I was part of the army which laid siege to this city. It took us almost three weeks before we persuaded Exeter to submit.'
'Yes, my lord,' continued Joscelin, 'but that was not the end of the matter. When you departed with the rest of the army, four more attempts were made to stir up a revolt and expel us. It has made the lord sheriff view the Saxon population with some degree of suspicion. However,' he said, waving an arm towards the inner bailey, 'you are completely secure here and I will be happy to escort you to your apartments. A feast has been prepared in your honour and the lord sheriff will be there to give you a more formal welcome to the city.'
'Thank you,' said Ralph.
'He had intended to be here when you arrived, but the investigation took him out of the castle this afternoon.'
'Yes, my lord. A man was brutally murdered last night.'
Golde was shocked, Gervase curious and Ralph alerted but it was Hervey de Marigny who pressed for the salient details.
'Has the killer been apprehended yet?' he said.
'No, my lord,' replied the steward.
'Is his name known?'
'The lord sheriff is at present seeking to identify him.'
'Who was the victim? Norman or Saxon?'
'Norman, my lord. And well respected in the county. His name was Nicholas Picard.'
'Picard?' echoed Gervase with slight alarm. 'But he is involved in one of the major land disputes we have come to settle. Only last night, I was studying the documents relating to his case. Nicholas Picard was to have been called before us on several counts.'
'That will no longer be possible,' said the steward discreetly. 'But you will glean fuller details from the lord sheriff over the banquet. He knows far more than I may tell you. Come,' he added, 'you must be tired after your journey and in need of rest. Please follow me.'
'Lead on,' said Ralph.
The four of them were led across the courtyard, noting how neat and tidy it was kept and how well-drilled the guards appeared to be. Exeter Castle felt completely safe, yet its garrison seemed to be poised to fight off an imminent assault. The visitors suddenly became aware of how isolated the city was and how they were part of a small Norman minority in a city that was still essentially Saxon in tone and atmosphere.
Golde felt once more the pull of conflicting loyalties, her instinctive sympathy for the indigenous population offset against the vow of obedience she had given to her husband and the ties of love which bound the two of them so indissolubly together. It put her in an anomalous position and she wondered whether it had been altogether wise to accompany Ralph on this particular assignment. Holding her arm as they walked towards the inner bailey, he sensed her misgivings.
'What is the matter, my love?'
'It is nothing.'
'Something is troubling you.'
'I am fatigued.'
'Are you not glad that we have arrived?'
'Yes,' she said. 'Glad but ... unsettled.'
'You cannot be both, Golde.'
'Yet I am.'
'That does not make sense,' he argued. 'Do you still feel guilty about being the wife of a Norman? Is that it?' He gave a chuckle. 'I thought you had learned to live with that disability.'
He squeezed her arm and gave her an affectionate kiss on the cheek. Golde relaxed. Her doubts vanished and she thought only of the more pleasant aspects of their stay in Devon, reminding herself that she was merely a passenger and had no official function. It was not her place to introduce any personal qualms. Golde was there to support her husband and to share the few private moments they would contrive together.
The keep was a tall, square, solid structure, perched on the high mound which was a characteristic feature of a Norman castle. They went up the steps which had been cut into the grass and entered through the door. A staircase faced them but they were not allowed to ascend it. Blocking their way and beaming inanely at them was a short, round individual with an unusually large head from which hair sprouted wildly like weeds in a neglected garden. He was dressed in the garb of a Saxon peasant and wore a full beard. In his hand he bore a stick with an inflated pig's bladder at the end of it.
When the group appeared, he let out a cackle of joy and brought them to a halt with a wave of his stick. Without warning, he then pretended to fall down the steps before he pulled himself to his feet, went through the door and somersaulted down the mound. They watched in amazement.
'Who, in God's name, was that?' spluttered Ralph.
'Berold,' explained the steward.
'Berold? Is he a madman?'
'Of a sort, my lord. He is a jester.'