Kyle Shaw, deputy to the sheriff of Ayrshire, sat at a table in a dark corner of the Bull and Bear Tavern. Beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead and formed on his upper lip. Although the windows along the side wall were open, there was no cross breeze to temper the warmth in the public house on that early evening in mid-July.
Kyle lifted a mug to his lips and swallowed a mouthful of watered-down ale. The amber brew was tepid and bland, yet it served to wash down the stale barley bread that came with his supper—a thick mutton stew with more turnips and onions in it than meat.
He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall behind him, ignoring the drone of conversation punctuated with raucous laughter. At that time of day, the tavern was filled to capacity with travelers seeking shelter for the night, burghers from town eating their last meal of the day, and English soldiers from the nearby garrison relaxing after the changing of the guard.
After listening to Sir Percy—the castellan of Ayr Garrison—rant for the past hour about an incursion into the north of England by Scottish rebels who left a trail of wanton destruction in their wake, Kyle was glad to have a moment to himself, undisturbed by the demands of his office as deputy. Sir Percy had made it sound like a full-fledged invasion into England, whereas in reality it was an ill-organized sortie by a ragtag bunch of rebels of Scottish descent attempting to throw off the oppressive yoke of English domination.
A loud voice from somewhere off to the left intruded into Kyle’s quietude.
“You, there,” said a man in a commanding tone. “Get up from that table. Make way for your betters.”
Kyle opened his eyes to gaze in that direction through the haze of smoke from lighted oil lanterns, mildly curious as to the cause of the outburst and immensely hopeful the disturber of his peace would settle the matter quickly.
The man who spoke so boldly, a portly fellow in his forties, was evidently confident of his status, for he loomed over the recipient of his demand—a vagabond by the look of him—who sat alone at the table nearest to the tavern entryway. Even without three armed retainers standing behind him, ostensibly ready to carry out their master’s will, the portly man gave the impression of being someone used to getting his way.
“You, sir, are interrupting my meal,” the vagabond replied with sufficient volume to be heard over the hum of voices and the clank of pewter mugs. He spoke with a slight French accent, yet he used the proper English of an educated man, which seemed out of character with his impoverished appearance.
The voluble exchange between the pair of them apparently drew the notice of every person in the room, for the babble of conversation ceased abruptly. The only sound heard was the snuffle of dogs rooting for scraps of food in the dirty straw on the wooden floor.
The two men involved in the dispute were complete opposites in rank and appearance. One was arrogant, imperious, and comported himself as a man of means. He certainly looked the part in fitted green leggings and a tan linen shirt under a soft doeskin jerkin. A green hunting cap sat on his head at a jaunty angle. His plump face was shaved clean, and his hair, which was as black as his eyes, was cropped short in the Norman fashion. The large buckle that fastened his tooled leather sword belt was silver, as was the hilt of the sword at his hip.
By contrast, the vagabond was a lean man in his late twenties, clad in a short belted tunic of dun-colored homespun. The garment was patched in places and frayed at the hem, yet it fit him well. His face was handsome, with sharp features and a three-day stubble on his square jaw. His eyes were a curious shade of amber, and his long brown hair, veined with blond streaks from exposure to the sun, was clubbed back and tied at the nape of his neck with a leather thong. The stained home-tanned cowhide sheath on his belt was empty, for he was using his dagger—a small double-edged blade with a plain wooden handle—as a utensil with which to eat.
On hearing the vagabond’s retort, the portly man’s face flushed with anger, and blue veins began to throb in his temples. “How dare you speak to me like that,” he barked. “I’ll teach you manners, you lout.” He reached for the silver hilt of his sword and drew forth the weapon.
The scrape of steel against the metal lip of the scabbard reached Kyle’s ears where he sat halfway across the room. He heaved himself to his feet, his brief reprieve from the cares of the constabulary plainly at an end. He started forward, ready to intervene between the two men, should it become necessary. Some of the English soldiers he passed along the way appeared hopeful that the dispute over the occupancy of the table would escalate into a brawl, which would brighten an otherwise uneventful evening.
The vagabond laid his dagger on the table and wiped his fingers on the front of his tunic. His countenance was neither compliant nor defiant. He just sat there waiting, as though to see what the portly man would do next. Even so, there was a wary vigilance about him, like a coiled spring ready to leap into action if pushed too far.
Kyle walked up at that moment and identified himself, including both men in the introduction. “What seems to be the problem?” he said, looking from one to the other.
“The fellow wants my table.” The vagabond glanced down at the glob of thick stew clinging to a small slab of bread. “As you can see, I have not yet finished my supper.”
Kyle’s gaze shifted to the portly man. “He’ll be done in a minute,” he said in the most reasonable tone he could muster. He tilted his head at the drawn sword. “No need to shed blood over something so trivial.”
The vagabond picked up his dagger and went back to eating his food.
“I will decide what is trivial and what is not,” the portly man said. “Just do your duty and remove that man at once.”
“What for?” Kyle said. “He is causing no mischief. In truth, you are the only one waving a sword about."
The portly man’s face went from red to purple at the pointed remark. “I will not be contradicted,” he blustered. “Do you know who I am?”
“You have me at a disadvantage, m’lord, for I cannot claim the honor of your acquaintance,” Kyle said with a disarming smile meant to forestall the man’s rancor. Otherwise, it might prove difficult to explain to Sir Percy why he—a deputy hired to keep civil order—engaged in a sword fight with an Englishman over a tavern table.
“I am Sir Guy de Forz of the House of Lancaster, Peer of the Realm.” He lifted his chin as he spoke, clearly proud of his heritage.
“Welcome to the port town of Ayr, m’lord,” Kyle said with a slight inclination of his head.
Sir Guy’s measuring glance swept the tall Scots deputy in the prime of life from head to toe, taking in the tawny hair that fell in waves to his broad shoulders, the pale blue eyes as transparent as ice, and the well-muscled body under a belted brown linen tunic that reached his bare knees. The black eyes came to rest on the only blemish that marred the lean and finely chiseled features—a white seam of a scar that ran from temple to jaw on the left side of his clean-shaven face.
“A souvenir from a Flemish halberd on the field of battle,” Kyle said in response to the portly man’s questioning gaze. “Unfortunately for the halberdier, he did not live long enough to brag about it.”
“I can tell you are a man of action,” Sir Guy said. “I will take it, then, that you are capable of dealing with the barbarians that infest this land.”
“Which barbarians are you referring to, m’lord?” Kyle said.
“The Scotch and the French, of course,” Sir Guy said, glancing meaningfully at the vagabond.
“Perhaps you are not aware that I am a Scotsman, born and bred,” Kyle said, just to be perverse.
“I am astonished to hear it.” Sir Guy looked genuinely taken aback. “You do not converse in the unintelligible gibberish of the locals.”
“I blame that on the years I spent in France,” Kyle said. “I served in the French king’s army as liaison between the provost marshal and mercenaries accused of criminal offenses.”
“I see,” Sir Guy said, apparently at a loss of words.
About that time, the vagabond cleaned both sides of his dagger on a bit of leftover bread and returned the blade to the sheath at his waist. He rose to his feet and slung a cloth sack over his shoulder. “Your table awaits, m’lord,” he said to Sir Guy with an exaggerated bow. He retrieved his quarterstaff from where it lay on the floor under the bench, turned on his heel, and headed for the tavern door.
“It’s about time,” Sir Guy grumbled. He placed the tip of his sword against the lip of his scabbard and rammed it in. “Do not think you will get away with your effrontery,” he said in a loud voice directed at the departing vagabond.
Without a backward glance, the young man opened the door and went out into the twilight beyond.
Sir Guy glanced over at Kyle. “As for you, I shall not overlook your dereliction of duty. Sir Percy will hear about this before I leave in the morning.” He seated himself at the now-vacant table and gestured for his retainers to settle on the bench across from him.
“Pompous arse,” the vagabond muttered under his breath as he stepped from the tavern with his staff in his hand. He carried his travel bag with care, for in it was the precious cargo with which he’d been entrusted.
He stood there for a long moment, gazing out into the empty courtyard, fully expecting Sir Guy’s retainers to follow him outside to “teach him manners.” While he waited, a fine mild dusk settled around him, washing the stable and the dwellings on either side of the public house into muted shades of gray.
The only people who came out the tavern door were burghers and other townsfolk. After a while, he decided to move on. His options of where to go were rather limited in light of the fact that he had but half a penny to his name.
There would be no options at all if he continued to dawdle in front of the tavern, so he started across the small open area, headed for the open gates.
Townsfolk in the street beyond hurried about their business, lest darkness overtake them. How ironic, he reflected, that man by nature feared the gloom of night, yet to him, it provided a sense of anonymity. A weighty task had been assigned to him, one that he must carry out at all costs, no matter the obstacles he encountered in the path before him.
On leaving the courtyard, he crossed Harbour Street to the river bank on the far side. There was still light enough at the end of the day to find a grassy place on the sloped embankment. He lowered himself onto the flowering clover and leaned back against his travel bag, using it to cushion his head.
The yellow reflection of the newly risen moon shimmered on the surface of the river. The flickering light on the water had a hypnotic effect on him. His eyelids soon grew heavy, and he drifted off to sleep.
An hour later, he awoke with a start. The moon, now high in the starlit sky, shed a silvery radiance on the trees along the river bank, carving out each branch laden with leaves.
He turned to glance at the empty street behind him. Now that folks had settled in for the night, perhaps this would be a good time see to the business at hand.
He climbed to his feet and headed back to the tavern courtyard across Harbour Street.
Uninterrupted slumber was a rare thing in Kyle’s house these days for two reasons: his son—a four-week-old infant with a lusty pair of lungs—and his stepson—an energetic fifteen-month-old toddler who put everything into his mouth from pebbles to bugs and anything else that he could get his chubby little hands on. Both children lay in the bed snuggled between him and his wife, Joneta.
That was why the insistent knocking on his front door, which robbed him of the last few minutes of precious sleep, elicited a despairing groan that came from the depths of his soul.
Joneta opened one hazel eye to peer at him. “Do ye want me to get that, my love?” she said in a voice furred with sleep. Tumbled locks of light auburn hair spread out around her head on the pillow.
“Nay, dearest, you stay put so as not to wake the bairns.” He tried not to shake the bed as he rose from it, lest the hue and cry of the never-ending feeding cycle start up again. By some miracle, the children slept on, their breathing even and regular as to suggest his effort to leave them undisturbed had met with success.
He snatched his brown tunic from the back of a chair and slipped it over his head as he hastened into the front room. He jerked open the door to stop the noisy pounding on the wooden jamb.
Bright sunlight flooded into the room, nearly blinding him after the gloom inside. He lifted a hand to shade his eyes and found an English soldier in light armor waiting outside, holding the reins of a couple of horses, one of which was his own sorrel gelding.
It was Sergeant Vinewood, a comely young man of middle height, well put together with wide shoulders and a narrow waist. Women liked him for his engaging smile and seductive brown eyes. Kyle liked him because he was dependable, trustworthy, and more tolerant of Scottish folk than most Englishmen.
On a Sunday morning, however, his sergeant was the last person he wanted to see. “What is it?” he said, unable to keep the edge from his voice.
A smile tugged at Vinewood’s lips. He was clearly amused at the sight of his immediate superior standing there, barefooted with rumpled hair and his tunic on inside out. “Did I wake you?”
Kyle drew in a deep breath and let it out in a single blast. “What do you think?” he said with a pained expression on his face.
“Sorry to disturb,” Vinewood said, his countenance now grave with the weight of his message. “It’s one of the guests at the Bull and Bear. He’s dead. I suspect foul play was involved, otherwise they would have sent for Prior Drumlay to collect the body.”
That chased the cobwebs from Kyle’s mind. “Fetch John Logan,” he said, referring to the apothecary whose knowledge of herbs and simples was well known throughout the shire, as was his expertise in the post-mortem examination of victims to determine the cause of death.
“I already dispatched someone to inform Master John of the incident,” Vinewood said.
“Good lad,” Kyle said. “Have you notified the sheriff? You know how he hates to be left out.”
The sheriff of whom he spoke was Reginald de Crawford, the late sheriff’s eldest son who had recently returned from duties in the north of Scotland to carry on in his father’s place as sheriff of Ayrshire, a hereditary title held by the Crawfords for generations.
“Not yet,” Vinewood said. “He’s attending Mass at Saint John’s. I thought it best not to disturb him.”
“I will fill him in later, then,” Kyle said.
He ducked inside to splash water on his face. After drying off, he righted his clothing, pulled on his boots, and buckled on his sword belt. He raked a hand through his hair to tame his unruly locks and headed out the front door, closing it softly behind him.
The vagabond smiled to himself as he used the hoe in his hands to uproot an especially tenacious weed. What a good idea it was to come to the priory yesterday evening to seek shelter for the night. His stomach was full, a rare occurrence during the last few months spent living off the land. He felt well rested, too, thanks to sleeping on a soft pallet under a roof that did not leak, rather than lying on lumpy ground under the stars, where he was subject to the capricious whims of the weather.
Before the midmorning sun topped yonder wall, he would be on his way with food in his pouch and ale in his goatskin bottle.
He turned his attention to the garden plot. If he expected to finish on time, he would have to put his back into it. With the smell of freshly turned earth in his nostrils, he continued to chop at errant weeds that had sprouted up between the neat rows of bean plants.
Kyle and Vinewood rode up Harbour Street in the early morning light. When they reached the gates of the Bull and Bear Tavern, they turned into the small courtyard in front of the public house where travelers could debark safely within the enclosed area.
The tavern was a plain two-story, wood-framed structure that hunched like an eyesore among the fine stone houses built by prosperous burghers along the south side of Harbour Street. On the north side of the street, sunlight glittered on the surface of the water as the River Ayr flowed westward toward the Firth of Clyde a short distance away. An alley on either side of the public house separated it from its well-to-do neighbors. A bull and a bear—the creatures depicting the tavern’s namesake—had been artfully carved into a weathered signpost above the gated entryway.
“Shut the gates,” Kyle said to his sergeant. “Except for the apothecary, don’t let anybody in or out until I finish up.”
Vinewood dismounted to do as he was bidden.
Kyle nudged the gelding toward the stable that closed in one side of the tavern courtyard.
The groom, a grizzled man of indeterminate age, came out to hold the gelding’s bridle.
“What’s going on here?” Kyle said as he swung down from the saddle.
“I were about to ask ye the same,” the groom said with the soft burr of a lowlander. “I heard loud voices inside the tavern earlier. Then, a man come out and told me to call the sheriff. I sent a boy along to the garrison to fetch ye. That’s all I know. The man locked the tavern door, so I couldn’t get in to see what the ruckus was about.”
“Besides the boy, did anybody leave the premises this morning, either before or after you heard the voices?”
“Nay,” the groom said. “I were here the whole time. All the horses stabled here last night are still in their stalls, too.”
“Let’s keep it that way unless you clear it with me first,” Kyle said. “Understood?”
“Aye,” the groom said with a nod.
The crunch of wooden wheels on the gravel driveway brought Kyle’s head around.
Vinewood opened the gates to let John Logan, a staid Scotsman on the downhill side of fifty, drive his wagon into the tavern courtyard.
“Good morrow,” Kyle said as the apothecary hauled on the reins to bring the old brown mule to a halt.
“Good morrow to ye,” John said, climbing down from the high seat. His gray hair glinted like polished silver in the sunlight. “So, who died?”
“Don’t know yet,” Kyle said with a shake of his head. “I just got here myself.”
John plucked his leather medicament bag from the wagon bed, and the two of them walked up to the front door of the public house.
Kyle tried the latch, but it was locked. He lifted a hand and rapped on the jamb.
The sound brought forth a leathery middle-aged man with a hatchet nose who peered at them through the gap in the half-opened door.
Kyle recognized him as one of Sir Guy’s retainers.
The man evidently recognized Kyle, too, for he opened the door wide to let him and John gain admittance.
The front room of the tavern, which was filled with tables in no particular order, looked the same as any other day. There were no occupants at those tables, though, and that made the room seem larger and emptier.
“I received word that someone here has died,” Kyle said.
“It’s my master,” the retainer said in a flat voice. It was hard to tell whether he was glad or sad, for his weathered face remained impassive. “I took it upon myself to send for you.”
Kyle frowned at the news of Sir Guy’s demise. The man was an overbearing English nobleman, proud of his title and status, yet no more so than most men of rank and position. Should the circumstances surrounding Sir Guy’s death prove to be suspicious, it would only confirm that the man had enemies, as did most men of wealth and power. “And you are…?” he said to the retainer.
“Dooley, chief of the guard. I have been in Sir Guy’s employ for more than ten years.”
“Where is his body?”
“Last room on the second floor,” Dooley said.
“Who found him?”
“Did anyone besides you go into his room?”
“I didn’t go into the room,” Dooley said. “I saw enough from the doorway to know he was quite dead.”
Kyle exchanged a glance with John.
About that time, the tavern keeper, a short heavyset man with a tan apron over a wrinkled black tunic, came out of the back room and scurried over to where Kyle stood near the entryway.
“It’s about time ye got here,” the tavern keeper said with reproach in his voice. “That man”—he stabbed a blunt finger at Dooley—“is determined to run me out of business. He banished the guests to their rooms and refused to let them come down to break their fast.”
“And rightly so,” Kyle said. “I don’t want anybody underfoot while I look into this matter. That includes you, too.”
“Why, oh, why did the fellow have to die in my tavern,” the tavern keeper lamented, wringing his pudgy hands in evident distress. “Why couldn’t he depart this life somewhere else?”
“Keep the front door locked for now,” Kyle said to the taverner. He swung around and headed across the room, with John and Dooley at his heels. He mounted the steep wooden stairs against the back wall and stepped onto the landing on the second floor.
A tiny window at the top of the stairs shed sufficient light to dispel the gloom in the long hallway ahead of him.
The hollow clump of boots on the wooden floor brought a dozen guests from their rooms. They crowded into the hallway behind Kyle, John, and Dooley and followed the three of them to the far end, where the two other retainers in Sir Guy’s employ stood in front the last doorway, effectively barring entry to the room.
“What happened to the man in there?” said one of the guests.
“Is it true he’s dead?” said a second guest.
“You cannot keep me here,” said a third guest. “I have pressing business in Carlisle. I must get on with my journey right away.”
“Go back to your rooms for now,” Kyle said to them. “I will speak to each one of you in turn. After that, you will be free to go.”
That seemed to mollify them for the moment, for they turned to shuffle back down the hallway, murmuring to one another on the way to their respective rooms.
Kyle went on to the end of the hall. The retainers stepped aside to let him approach the door. When he opened it, the nauseating smell of vomit assaulted his nostrils. He crossed the floor to the long narrow window and flung open the shutters to let in fresh air and light. He turned and swept the room with his gaze.
The furnishings consisted of a bed with a thin blanket on it. A pitcher and bowl sat on a small table beside the bed.
A green hunting cap and a sheathed sword lay discarded on the floor, as though they had been dropped in haste.
Sir Guy reclined on his side on the bed, fully dressed and curled in the fetal position with his arms pressed against his midsection, as though hugging himself. His waxen features were frozen in a grimace of pain, and the foaming spittle around his slack mouth was flecked with blood. A puddle of pink-tinged vomit befouled the floor beside the bed, and streaks of vomit stained the blanket near his mouth.
“What do you think?” Kyle said to John, who squatted by the bed to get a closer look at the body.
“My first guess would be poison,” John said, rising to his feet.
“Mine, too.” Kyle glanced up at the trio of retainers who watched in silence from the open doorway. None of them as much as blinked an eye at the news.
John leaned over to grasp a limb. “He’s still stiff.”
“How long do you reckon he’s been dead?” Kyle said.
“From before midnight, for sure,” John said.
Kyle looked on while John conducted a cursory examination of the body. When finished, he wiped his hands on an unsoiled portion of the blanket and reached for his medicament bag.
“Any signs of violence on him?” Kyle said.
“None that I can readily see,” John said. “I will know more when he’s laid out in the mortuary chapel.”
Kyle beckoned to the retainers. “As you heard,” he said when they ambled into the room, “there is a possibility that Sir Guy died from ingesting poison. None of you seemed shaken at the news. Why is that?”
The three men exchanged glances and shrugged their shoulders.
“It is unfitting,” Dooley said, taking the lead in speaking for his comrades, “for hirelings like us to meddle in the affairs of kings and nobles.”
“I see.” Kyle expected an evasive answer, and he got one. It did tell him, though, that Sir Guy inspired loyalty in his men, and that was good to know. “I take it Sir Guy kept his own counsel in his dealings with others.”
“He did,” Dooley said. “Hence, only he would know why anyone would want to take his life.”
“Well, then,” Kyle said. “I still need an accounting from each of you as to your whereabouts last night.”
“Do you really believe one of us murdered the master?” Dooley seemed unperturbed at the notion, which spoke volumes about his own innocence and that of his companions.
“Everyone is a suspect until the issue of Sir Guy’s death is resolved,” Kyle said.
“Since you put it like that, I’ll tell you,” Dooley said. “We all slept in the room next door.”
The other two retainers nodded their accord.
“What took you so long to attend to him this morning?” Kyle said.
“I didn’t hear him moving about in his room,” Dooley said. “If I had, I would have gone in to him immediately. This being Sunday, I thought he decided to sleep in after a hard day on the road yesterday.”
“Did any one of you leave the room at any time during the night?” Kyle said, scrutinizing their faces for signs of deceit.
They all shook their heads in denial.
“All right, then,” Kyle said, satisfied they were telling the truth. “You may go, although I would appreciate if you would help John carry the body down to the wagon outside for transport to Saint John’s Priory.”
“No need for that,” Dooley said. “We will take Sir Guy to Penrith for burial. His family would want him interred in the de Forz ancestral tomb.”
“So you shall,” Kyle said, “but only after a more thorough examination of his body. After that, I will release his remains into your care.”
“Very well.” Dooley bent down to retrieve Sir Guy’s cap and sword from the floor and placed them on top of the body. The three retainers and John each gathered up a corner of the blanket and lifted the dead weight clear of the bed.
While they carried the body out the room and along the hallway, Kyle knocked on the first door to interview the occupants.
It took him less than an hour to question all twelve guests to determine where they had been between dusk and midnight. Each shared a room with at least three other men, so nobody could open the door or even move about the room without somebody being aware of it. Fortunately for them, each one corroborated the others’ story.
Now that the guests were allowed to leave, they did so with alacrity, not even pausing for a bite to eat on their way out the front door of the tavern.
Kyle descended the stairs at a more sedate pace and walked over to where the tavern keeper stood by the entryway, watching his guests depart in haste.
“I’m glad the matter is settled,” the tavern keeper said. “Now I can get back to business as usual.”
“The matter is far from settled,” Kyle said. “Sir Guy died from something he ate here.”
“The new cook is not as experienced as the last one, but his cooking isn’t that bad.”
“It wasn’t the food that killed Sir Guy. It was the poison in it.”
“Poison?” the tavern keeper said, aghast. “That cannot be so. I served everyone out of the same pot. Ye ate some of it, too.”
“Are you sure Sir Guy didn’t receive extras, like sauce for his meat or pastry for dessert?”
The tavern keeper shook his head emphatically. “He ate bread and stew, like everybody else. After that, he and his men retired to their rooms for the night.”
Kyle recalled the underlying sour odor of the vomit and its pinkish color. “Did Sir Guy perhaps take a flask of wine up to his room?”
“If he did, he didn’t get it from me,” the tavern keeper said.
“Let me know if you recall anything more from last night. Even if it seems insignificant, it might have a bearing on this matter.”
“I know nothing except what I already told you. However, I will do as ye ask.”
“Thanks,” Kyle said.
He walked outside in time to see John’s wagon rumble through the open gates with the three retainers riding escort behind the body of their master. A roan stallion with an empty saddle on its back trotted along with them on a lead rope tied to the wagon bed.
“Leave the gates open,” he said to Vinewood, who was about to close them. “We’re done here now.”
He crossed over to the stable to retrieve his gelding. The groom met him at the entryway and handed the reins to him.
“Another Southron dead,” the Scots groom said, holding the bridle while Kyle mounted his horse. “That can’t be all bad.”
“I wouldn’t say that too loud, if I were you,” Kyle said. “The English are a mite twitchy about such talk these days.”
“I wish they’d twitch themselves back to where they came from and leave us in peace,” the groom said with a fierce scowl.
Kyle thought nothing of the groom’s remark. The man merely gave voice to the hostility most Scots felt toward the English, whose unwanted occupation of their homeland for ten long years had brought them nothing but hardship and privation. With no king on the Scottish throne and Edward of England camped on their doorstep in his eagerness to claim feudal overlordship of Scotland to enrich his coffers, it was no surprise that the Scottish populace was primed and ready to rebel against the English boot on their necks.