Guy of Gisburne opened his eyes, blinked owlishly and asked, "What happened?"
He was confused. His head throbbed, and the hall seemed to dance and sway in a fashion that promised substantial unpleasantness, should he even attempt to move. As far as he could assess the situation without moving, then, it appeared that he was lying in his bedroll, stripped of his armour, and men were milling all around him.
De Rainault's voice sounded directly over him. "You hit your head, Gisburne. Of course, I should have known it wouldn't prove life-threatening in your case."
Gisburne tried to roll to his side, and was rewarded for his efforts by an instant wave of nausea. He dry-heaved, noting with detached pleasure how speedily the Sheriff scrambled back.
"Congratulations are in order, Gisburne," de Rainault told him from a safe distance, once the steward had stopped coughing. "It takes remarkable talent to brain yourself using nothing but a fifty-year-old bench. You never cease to amaze me, do you?"
"You can sleep it off till morning, Gisburne, and if you feel the need to retch, for the love of God, don't. The smell carries."
Gisburne closed his eyes, and heard de Rainault walk away. Things were not too clear to him at the moment; he couldn't remember hitting his head at all, but he thought he recalled walking around the building with a pair of strangers, a monk and a knight; a stocky old Benedictine and a small, dark-haired man not much older than himself. Thinking about them, he fell asleep.
Reynilda's betrothed, Adam de Ware, was a large man, at least seven or eight years older than his intended bride, possessed of a loud voice, and a brash, confident manner. As soon as Reynilda informed him about the death of her uncle, the circumstances which surrounded it, and the presence of the Sheriff in the house, he insisted that he must aid in the investigation. "I was out hunting – devil take it!" he indignantly explained to Hugh and Cadfael. "Went some time after midday, to shoot myself a pheasant or a hare, but I got lost and nearly became food for the wolves myself. 'Tis a pity I was not here, or I'd have hunted down that villain John as soon as this foul murder was discovered!"
"You would not have found him," said Reynilda, a little sharply. "He's a local man, and knows the woods well. You'd never see him there after dark. Besides," she added with a sideways glance at Hugh, "his lordship thinks John cannot be the murderer, after all."
Adam waved her remark aside. "'Tis no matter, he's an escaped serf either way. Now, my lord Sheriff," he turned to Hugh, looking at him with unabashed curiosity, "what is it that you intend to do about this crime?"
Hugh studied him in turn. Not a man of these parts, of that he was sure; being Sheriff, he knew all the noble families, even in the most remote corners of the shire, but neither the face nor the name were familiar to him. "I would like to see Master Deschamps' body now, if I may."
Reynilda bowed her head in agreement. "Of course. Follow me, my lord."
Although the invitation had not been extended to Brother Cadfael, he was ready to inveigle himself along anyway; but, as he made to rise, Beringar's hand brushed his sleeve, and he saw that the Sheriff's gaze was trained on something in the hall itself, further away from the hearth. Nodding almost imperceptibly, Cadfael relaxed and leaned back in his seat. Hugh exited the hall after Reynilda, and was not greatly surprised to see that Adam de Ware had followed, moving very quietly for a man of his size.
Godfrey Deschamps' body had been laid out in his own bed, until such a time when a coffin could be made. The room was dark, the air still heavy with the smell of violent death. Beringar uncovered Deschamps' face and looked at it intently for a while. Much more peaceful in death than in life, it nevertheless retained some marks of pride and of a temper quick to flare with anger. The cheeks were more sunken than Hugh remembered from his brief meeting with the man some time ago, but other features remained unchanged: a powerful chin and a furrowed brow that not even death itself could fully smooth out. And yet, Hugh thought, he had not been such a hard man, this Godfrey Deschamps, if the servants in his house were not afraid to speak their mind freely, like Martha had.
He examined the body as best he could, looking for signs of struggle but finding none, save for a small wound to the chest, where a narrow blade had pierced Godfrey's heart and ended his life. A clean blow, Hugh noted, and almost certainly an instantaneous death. More might be discovered when Brother Cadfael looked at the dead man with his more practiced eye, but for now, this would have to suffice.
He focused his attention back on the silent couple. Reynilda was sitting on a low stool, half turned away from the body and very pale, seemingly close to tears again. When she noticed Beringar looking at her, she made an effort to compose herself and rose to her feet, ignoring Adam's outstretched hand.
"Forgive me, my lord. But he was my uncle, and my guardian, since my father's untimely death last summer. I––I cannot bear to look at him thus."
Hugh proposed that they might talk outside instead, and the offer was met with gratitude. Once she had stepped over the threshold, Reynilda breathed more easily. At Beringar's question, she repeated her story of how the murder was discovered. "I had seen my uncle alive only an hour before! He was weak after his illness, but recovering. If I had but realised..."
"And you know of no one who might have wished him ill?"
"No, my lord. My uncle had no enemies."
Then he was a fortunate man, indeed, Beringar thought wryly, but kept his silence.
"Except," she hesitated, "that man John... you did not believe that he was the killer, my lord, but I know that he was one such that could have had a grudge against my uncle. He made John his trusted man, and it went to his head, I think. He set his sights on me, and I would have none of it," she said with a child's brutal honesty. "My uncle had words with him, and John was angry. Do you not suppose, my lord, that he might have killed my uncle because of it?"
Hugh said nothing, turning instead to Adam de Ware. "Did you know Master Deschamps well?"
"Not very well," de Ware answered, respectful but unconcerned, indifferent to the deathly chamber that lay on the other side of the door. "My lands are far in the north, next to Reynilda's own inheritance."
"I lived there with my father, while he was yet alive," the young woman added. "It was his wish that Adam and I should marry."
Yes, but is it your wish, too? wondered Beringar. She had been very anxious when she thought Adam lost in the snow, but once he had returned and she saw he was well, she seemed more impatient with him than anything else. Certainly they knew each other well; but they had the air of business partners about them, more than a young couple in love.
Aloud, he said only, "I think I have seen enough. We can go back to the hall."
While all this was taking place, Brother Cadfael, who had taken Beringar's wordless suggestion for what it was, ventured to talk to the three supposed pilgrims, pointed out to them by Martha of Cotteswalde; three dour, heavyset men who glowered at him as he approached, and did not move to make room for him on their bench. Still, the monk reflected, any man was entitled to care for the wellbeing of his immortal soul, and religious zeal did not have to go hand in hand with an agreeable demeanour, as he knew very well from his long acquaintance with Brother Jerome. Well, we shall see! he thought to himself.
The three men were not very much inclined to talk, but Cadfael persisted, full of good-natured naïveté and in the end they had to accept the fact that this prying old Benedictine would not leave them in peace until they satisfied his curiosity in some small way. Upon hearing that they were pilgrims, resting here on their way back from Shrewsbury, he clasped his hands in delight, a gesture which he had observed in the mild and unworldly old Abbot, Heribert, who yet – Cadfael thought with a small measure of guilt – had never used it to deceive anyone, as he was now doing. "But this is excellent news, my friends! Surely it means that you were in Shrewsbury on the feast of Saint Paul the Hermit?"
The men looked at one another guardedly. "We were," said one of them, bigger than the others, with thick hair falling over his small, deep-set eyes.
"Then you have witnessed the miracle? How that poor crippled lad, with the blessing of our own Saint Winifred, cast away his crutches and walked straight again?"
"Aye," the man agreed. "It was a great miracle, and we saw it, brother."
Cadfael smiled, and talked to them pleasantly for a while longer, then came to his place by the fire and sat there, deep in thought. This was how Hugh found him, when he returned to the hall.
"Well, Cadfael," Beringar sighed, sitting down by his friend, "I have just had a most interesting conversation with Mistress Burford and Master de Ware." He related everything that had been said, adding, "Cotteswalde was a perfectly harmonious household, it would seem, with the exception of young John, who, they assure me, must needs be the murderer I am looking for."
"But no mention of the quarrels between Deschamps and his niece? Not a word that perhaps there was no great love between the victim and de Ware?"
"None at all, although," here Hugh raised a sceptical eyebrow, "we have only Jennet's word that there were any such quarrels at all, and she is hardly an impartial witness."
"Would she lie to us, Hugh? With Martha close at hand to expose her untruths for what they were?" And expose them she would, this stalwart old woman, who always spoke her mind and cared nothing for what might follow. Martha would not allow Jennet to lie in her presence, even if it meant shifting the suspicion away from her great-grandson.
Hugh smiled. "Perhaps not! But let us follow on the accusations for a while yet. Martha herself told us that John had a weakness for pretty faces, so that part of Reynilda's story might well hold up. Also, if John had killed Deschamps at some time in the evening, and then set out on his way, he would have arrived in Shrewsbury at approximately the time that he did."
"If he had any reason to go to Shrewsbury at all," Brother Cadfael remarked stubbornly. "This testifies most strongly in his favour, Hugh – that he did go there."
"If that, yes! So, this is the case against John of Cotteswalde, and there are some who would dearly like to convince me that this enough to hang him as a murderer." He briefly smiled for a second time. "But I prefer to think that John is innocent, if only because, if he really knows these parts so well, he might have led my men to some shelter. I worry about them, Cadfael! They should be here by now."
The same thing had been on Brother Cadfael's mind, and he too was worried that their escort might have come to some harm in the snow. "Sergeant Warden is a stout fellow," he said to reassure himself as well as Hugh, "and I would be quite surprised if John did prove guilty in the end. I am certain he doesn't even know that he has been accused of anything yet. He will bring your men here, once the blizzard has stopped."
"I hope so, Cadfael – for our own sakes, as well as theirs. There is something happening here that I don't like. We shouldn't forget what Godfrey Deschamps wrote to me before he died. What of those supposed pilgrims – have you talked to them?"
"I have," said Cadfael, checking first to make sure that nobody was listening. "Wherever they come from, Hugh, I doubt that they were in Shrewsbury lately. I described to them the miracle that happened to Brother Rhys five years ago, and they all agreed with me that they'd witnessed it last Monday."
The two friends fell silent for a while, considering the situation. Hugh was the first to shake himself from his reverie. "I do not like where it all seems to be going, Cadfael. But come! You must look at the dead man. I tried to examine him myself, but your sharp eye will see everything that I might have missed."
"We must tread carefully, Hugh," Brother Cadfael warned him.
Beringar laughed quietly, and patted him on the back. "You are a monk, my friend! If anyone asks, we will tell them that you wanted to say your prayers over the dead man."
Nobody stopped them as they left the hall and made their way towards the room where the murdered Godfrey Deschamps lay. Cadfael uncovered the body and examined it quickly but thoroughly, while Beringar kept watch at the door. After a while, the monk raised his head and called his friend over.
"You were right, Hugh – a narrow wound through the heart and no signs of a struggle, which means that he died very quickly, without fighting back. But there is something curious about the body. Look at his wrists, Hugh! Look how limply they fall. His joints are broken, but there is no bruising. I think that when it was done, he was no longer alive."
"Which means that the stiffness which comes after death had already set in by the time he was found, and they had to break his joints in order to lay him out. Now, it sometimes happens that the stiffening of the muscles appears immediately after a man dies; I have seen such cases, and I know it to be possible. But more usually, it occurs some hours after death..."
"...and so," Hugh concluded, frowning, "Deschamps needn't have been killed in the evening; in fact, it is more likely that he died at some time during the afternoon."
"Yes," agreed Brother Cadfael. "Thus, for example, he could have been murdered before Master Adam de Ware left the manor to go for his peculiarly-timed hunting trip."