Kyle Shaw, deputy to the sheriff of Ayrshire, stood in the garret of Black Fell Castle’s square stone tower. Broken bricks and crumbled mortar from the partial demolition of an interior wall littered the floorboards around him. In the outer wall, a narrow window overlooking the desolate heath beyond let in light along with an icy wind on that morning in late November.
He lifted the lantern in his hand to peer into the hollow cavity between a double wall that hired laborers had stumbled upon during their renovation of the uppermost floor of the tower.
Mellow radiance flooded the dark recesses of the cramped space, illuminating the human remains within. The shriveled corpse, of which only the upper half was visible, reposed on its back, arranged in the classic mode of burial, with the hands folded across the chest. Fine clothing faded with age covered the shoulders and chest. There was also a glimmer of gold around the withered neck. The cause of death, though, was not readily apparent in the muted light.
Kyle straightened his back, taking care not to bump his head on the exposed rafters under the sloped roof. “He’s been in there for quite some time.” He passed the lantern to John Logan, the apothecary. “Here, take a look.”
John, a Scotsman in his fifties with gray hair and green eyes, stepped forward to gaze into the opening between the walls. “Aye, he has. I wonder who he is.”
“I’d like to know who put him in there,” Kyle said. He cast a questioning glance at Sir Walter Ainslie, the master of Black Fell Castle, who looked on in silence.
Sir Walter was an Englishman in his late twenties, with light brown eyes and dark gold hair. His garments were fashionable and his bearing dignified, in keeping with his station as a knight of the realm in the service of Edward of England. “I have no idea who he is or how he got there.” He met the Scots deputy’s pale blue eyes without blinking. “That is why I sent for you.” He seemed genuinely baffled at finding a dead body in the wall of his castle tower.
Also present was Richard Norhill, a friend of the Ainslie family who at that moment regarded Sir Walter with avid curiosity.
Kyle eyed the inner partition—now partly dismantled—that divided the top floor of the castle tower into four rooms. “What prompted you to tear down that wall?” he said to Sir Walter.
“For some time now, I have been of a mind to convert the garret into a single chamber,” Sir Walter said. “You can imagine my astonishment when the workers came across a body behind the brickwork.”
“By your leave, m’lord,” John said, joining the conversation. “I should examine the remains as soon as possible. After being sealed up for so many years, exposure to dampness in the air might hasten decomposition.”
“As you wish,” Sir Walter said. “I will summon the workers to take down the rest of the wall and remove the body.” He swung around and headed for the stairway.
A short while later, the mummified corpse lay on a long board propped across two stone blocks to make a low table. The rubble on the garret floor had been cleared away to allow access to the remains.
John began his examination, holding the lantern in such a way as to scrutinize every visible part of the body without disturbing it.
Light glinted on the heavy gold chain around the dead man’s neck. Patches of blond hair adhered to the skull. A moldy leather belt loosely encircled the waist. A small leather purse hung from the belt, as did an empty scabbard of a size to hold a dagger.
John tugged on the purse. The thin leather ties, which were rotted with age, parted with ease. He set the lantern on the makeshift table and opened the purse with both hands. Coins clinked as he poked at the contents with his finger. He then withdrew a folded scrap of parchment, brittle and yellowed with age, which he set on the board beside the body. He picked up the lantern and continued his assessment.
When he finished, he stepped back half a pace and cleared his throat. “The width of the clothing at the shoulders indicates that this was a powerfully built man. The length of his leg bones and the size of his feet signify that he was tall. The gold chain around his neck and the quality of his leather boots suggest he was wealthy.”
He pointed to the pale tresses stuck to the skull. “From the abundance of hair on his head, it appears that he was in his prime. Since his hair is fair, his eyes were probably blue. His bones and his features are regular, with no sign of deformity.” He drew forth his dagger, and with the flat of the blade, he lifted the head slightly to look under it. “His skull is free of marks, which rules out death from a blow to the head. Neither did he die from poison or strangulation. I say that with certainty because of compelling evidence that clearly shows the cause of death.”
He swept a hand over the large dark patch that stained the front of the dead man’s clothing, partially obscured by the crossed hands. “I counted seven slits in the fabric here on his chest. In addition, three links of his gold chain are deeply scored. The random location of each gouge and the irregularity of depth suggest they came from glancing blows with the tip of a steel blade.” He lifted his gaze to Sir Walter. “This man was stabbed to death.” With the tip of his dagger, he tapped the empty scabbard attached to the leather belt around the dead man’s waist. “Note that his dagger is missing. Considering the width of the sheath compared to the size of the slits in the garment, there is a good possibility he was slain with his own weapon.”
Sir Walter hunched his shoulders under his black velvet cloak lined with ermine, as though against a sudden chill. He remained silent for a full minute, evidently struggling to take it all in. “How in God’s name did a murdered man end up in my garret?” he said at last.
“That is a good question,” Kyle said. He turned to John. “Can you tell how long he has been in here?”
“Based on the outmoded style of his clothing,” John said, “I would say upwards of twenty years.”
“So, he was done to death with great violence,” Kyle said, staring down at the shriveled corpse. “His body was then hidden where no one would ever think to look for it. Yet he was laid out with dignity and care. It wasn’t done for gain, for no self-respecting thief would overlook that gold chain or the coins in his purse. Only his dagger is missing.”
“I wonder why the killer took the dagger,” John said.
“As a keepsake, perhaps,” Kyle said.
“If that is so, the dagger may still be out there somewhere,” John said.
“I hope it is,” Kyle said. “It will make my job of finding the culprit a whole lot easier.” He turned to Sir Walter. “How long has your family occupied this castle?”
“We have been in residence for three generations,” Sir Walter said. “Why?”
“It is rather difficult to haul a dead body up the stairs to the top floor of the tower and to build a wall of brick and mortar without help.”
“I have lived here all my life. In all that time, I never heard even a whisper that such a thing took place here.”
“It happened twenty years ago. You would have been a child of seven or eight years of age at the time.”
“Even so, servants tend to gossip. More to the point, had a member of my family gone missing, it would hardly be the subject of idle chitchat. Rather, it would have been cried aloud in the town square. As I told you, I have no memory of such an incident.”
“What of the lady I saw on my way in? Was she a resident here twenty years ago?”
“That is Lady Ornice. She is my elder sister, and aye, she lived here back then, too.”
“I would like to speak with her, if I may.”
“I fear she is not well enough to bear up under questioning. The sight of the body in the garret wall gave her quite a turn this morning. Speaking of which, do you plan to take the remains back to town with you?”
“Given his delicate state, I recommend that you place him in your crypt for now. Once his identity becomes known, his kinfolk can then remove him to give him a decent burial.”
“I feel badly that there is no priest to pray over the deceased before he is interred, albeit temporarily. When you go back to town, will you visit Prior Drumlay to make such a request on my behalf?”
“Certainly,” Kyle said. “As for the dead man’s identity, he was a man of means. Thus, his disappearance would not have gone unnoticed either. There might be a record of such an incident in the town archives. I will look into it and let you know what I find.”
“I would appreciate that,” Sir Walter said.
“There is no more for me to do here, so I will be on my way now,” John said.
“I’ll go with you,” Kyle said. He picked up the folded scrap of parchment that came from the dead man’s coin purse. “I’m taking this with me,” he said to Sir Walter. “The contents may reveal something about the murdered man.”
“It looks too fragile to open,” Sir Walter said.
“In its present state, it is,” Kyle said. “The parchment must be softened and that done with extreme care so as not to ruin the writing on it.” He tucked the fragment carefully into the pouch at his side, after which he took his leave and started for the tower stairs.
Cold wind whistled through the slotted windows set high in the wall of the stairwell. The narrow windows also let in sufficient light to see the way without the aid of a lantern. As he and John descended the stone steps, his thoughts turned to the dead man. At one time, the fellow had been a living, breathing person, until someone struck him down. Whether from hatred or jealousy or spite, deserving or undeserving, the outcome was the same. The man was dead, and someone connected with Black Fell Castle did it or knew who did. Improbable though it was, he hoped to find an old retainer or a long-time servant who might be able to fill in the missing details.
He followed John out into the bailey, where the sun at its zenith shed light without warmth. The air was crisp and cold, and there was a sharp edge to the icy breeze that stirred his tawny hair.
The two of them started across the cobbled courtyard, headed for the stable against the curtain wall that surrounded the castle. On the way, they passed a slatted pen with a sow and ten piglets in it. A dozen chickens in and around the pigpen scratched for insects in the fallen hay. Hunting dogs sprawled on the ground in the sunny places of the open yard.
“A body inside the garret wall,” John said, shaking his head. “That’s a first for me. It would have been the perfect crime, except for Sir Walter’s renovations.”
“In my experience,” Kyle said, “there is no such thing as a perfect crime. There is always something that gives the killer away, some mistake he makes that later trips him up. In this case, I suspect it is the missing dagger.”
Together, they entered the gloom of the stable and walked down the wide aisle between the box stalls on either side. About midway down the row, a tall dappled gray stallion stuck its head over the half door of its stall.
“What a beauty,” Kyle said, pausing to admire the magnificent creature. He lifted a hand to pet its nose.
The horse reacted violently to the harmless gesture. It jerked back its head and reared up with front hoofs flailing the air. It landed stiff-legged on the dirt floor, only to lash out at the slatted wooden wall with its hind legs. It began to pace around the inside of the large stall, eyes wide and nostrils flared.
“He’s a handful, all right,” said a voice behind him.
Kyle turned to see Richard Norhill standing there.
Norhill was a Welshman with the bold cheekbones and ruddy coloring of his kind. His eyes were as black as coal, as was his shoulder-length hair. A thin mustache and clipped goatee framed his mouth and chin, giving his face a devilish appearance. He cut a dashing figure in a maroon velvet cotte and leggings that fitted him well, and he carried a sword at his hip with the confidence of a man who knew how to use it.
Compared to Norhill’s finery, Kyle’s clothing was plain—a belted brown tunic that reached his knees, wool leggings of the same color, and a dark red wool cloak fastened at the throat with a simple bronze ring and pin. Unruly locks of tawny hair hung loose on his neck. His face was lean and shaved clean, his features chiseled, marred only by the white seam of a scar that extended from temple to jaw, a reminder of former days as a mercenary in the employ of King Philip IV of France. Now, at thirty-three years of age, he used his sword to uphold the law in his home town of Ayr, a busy seaport on the western coast of the Scottish lowlands.
“He seems a bit skittish,” Kyle said. “Have you ridden him yet?”
“Not yet,” Norhill said. “I just bought him this morning. It will take some work before he’s fit to ride.”
Kyle’s appreciative gaze swept the muscular body from noble head to prancing hoof. “He’s missing a shoe.”
“His hooves need trimming, too,” Norhill said. “I heard Macalister is good with difficult horses.”
“He is that,” Kyle said.
Norhill removed a small apple from the pouch at his side and presented it ever so slowly on the flat of his hand to the dappled gray. He spoke nonsensical words in a soothing tone, which seemed to calm the animal. It ceased its pacing and came over to nibble at the offering. “Horses are just like people,” he said, reaching up to scratch behind its ears. “Some are steady and calm. Others are high-strung and excitable, like this fellow.”
“So I’ve noticed.”
“The thing is, Lady Ornice has always been steady and calm. Until today, that is. This was the first time I saw her go to pieces. I tried to comfort her, but she would have none of it. Sir Walter told me not to concern myself, yet I cannot help but feel anxious for her well-being.”
“How long have you known her?”
“Going on two years,” Norhill said. “That was time enough to get to know her. I have found her to be more levelheaded and reasonable than her brother. When it comes to riding horses, she is fearless. She is the reason I brought this beauty here this morning, to show him off to her.” He slid his hand down the stallion’s nose to rub the velvety place between its nostrils. “Still, Ornice is a delicate female, so I must allow that her nerves would likely become frayed at the discovery of a dead body in the attic.”
“Given time, she will rally,” Kyle said.
“I have confidence that she will,” Norhill said. “She has a mind of her own, as she has proved in the past.” His black eyebrows drew together. “What puzzles me is why she lets her brother hold sway over her.”
“He does not strike me as a person who would mistreat his own sister.”
“He would never do that, of course. I only meant that she should be allowed to keep the company of whomever she chooses, without her brother’s interference.”
“I take it you care for the lady.”
“Is it that obvious?” Norhill said with a winsome smile.
“I’m afraid so.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I have affection for Walter, too. He is like a brother to me. He has made it clear, though, that my fondness for him cannot extend to his sister.”
“Has he told you why?”
“Not in so many words,” Norhill said. “I suspect it is because I am a merchant. He does not look down on me for it, but he apparently cannot approve of his sister entering holy wedlock with a man who works for a living.”
Just then, Vinewood, clad in a black leather jerkin and gray wool leggings, walked up with their mounts in tow. He was of middle height and well put together, with wide shoulders and a narrow waist. His youthful face was clean shaven, and his seductive brown eyes glinted with mischief. Women liked him for his comely features and engaging smile.
Kyle took his leave of Norhill and climbed into the saddle, as did Vinewood and John Logan. The three of them rode from the stable and headed across the open courtyard toward the castle gates under the stone archway.
“Did I hear Norhill say he worked for a living?” Vinewood said.
“Aye,” Kyle said, glancing at his sergeant. “Is that not so?”
“According to what the groom just told me,” Vinewood said, “Norhill owns half the ships in the harbor. He’s one of the richest men in the shire and grows richer each time one of his laden vessels sails out of port.”
“I wonder what Sir Walter has against the man,” Kyle said, musing aloud.
They set out at a lope along a rutted track across the heath—a wasteland of stunted shrubbery and bare hills, windswept and desolate, unfit for human habitation. Only the most resilient creatures could survive in such a barren wilderness. Clumps of wild gorse, whose yellow flowers bloomed year round no matter the season, studded the open land as far as the eye could see in all directions. Hardy tufts of summer grass were now brown from exposure to nightly frosts that portended the advent of a harsh winter. There was not a tree in sight to block the east wind that swept across the empty terrain.
They rode past the inland town of Maybole and on to the coastal road beside the Firth of Clyde, where the incoming tide rushed up onto a white sandy beach that stretched out for miles in either direction. When they reached the outskirts of Ayr, they slowed their pace. The houses there were closer together, and the garden plots smaller. They passed the millhouse that extended out over the river’s edge, its giant paddle wheel turning in sync with the swift current.
They turned onto Harbour Street, where stone houses belonging to rich burghers lined one side of the thoroughfare that ran parallel to the river. Along the way, they passed townsfolk and laborers, some on foot and others in pony-drawn carts, going about their business on that wintry day.
Kyle reined in at St. John’s Priory. Beyond the gates, the square sandstone tower of the church rose high in the air. The marketplace farther up the street separated the priory grounds from Ayr Garrison, which guarded the harbor at the mouth of the River Ayr. The masts of merchant ships docked at the wharf jutted skyward on the seaward side of the garrison wall.
“Sergeant,” Kyle said to Vinewood who halted beside him. “I have a message to deliver to Prior Drumlay. You can go on to the garrison.”
“Will do,” Vinewood said. He nudged his horse in the belly with his heels and continued on down the street.
“Thanks for your help this morning,” Kyle said to John. He leaned forward to tug on the bell rope beside the gate to summon the porter.
“Glad I could oblige,” John said. “I’ll go in with ye, if ye don’t mind. I’d like to check on Brother Thomas. He’s newly come from Whithorn Priory in Galloway. It’s his health, ye see. His breath is short after hardly any effort. His abbot sent him here in the hope that the mild climate and sea air will help him mend.” He shifted his weight in the saddle, as though to find a more comfortable position on the hard leather surface. “Perhaps we can have supper at the tavern tonight with our wives. There’s a new cook there who actually knows how to cook.”
“So I’ve heard,” Kyle said. “Count me in. I am sure Joneta would like it, too.”
At that moment, the tiny portal in the gate opened, and a face filled the square opening. “Oh, it’s you,” said the layman porter, evidently recognizing the visitors. Wood scraped against wood as he lifted the inside bar. The gate creaked open wide enough to let the horsemen enter. “Can’t be too careful about who comes a-calling. There’s trouble afoot these days, ye know.”
“More so than usual?” Kyle said as the porter shut the gate.
“I take it ye didn’t hear the latest,” the porter said, warming to the subject now that he had a willing audience. “Soldiers from the garrison pulled two bodies from the river early this morning. It seems a handful of rebels tried to waylay an English supply wagon last night, but it went badly for them. I heard that Sir Percy sent out a troop to comb the countryside for the ones who got away.”
Kyle and John exchanged a fleeting glance.
“There goes supper,” John said with a sigh.
“Maybe not,” Kyle said. “They can’t continue the hunt after dark.” To the porter, he said, “I would like to see Prior Drumlay, if I may.”
“He’s in the Prior’s Hall at this time of day,” the porter said.
“Thanks,” Kyle said with a nod.
He and John followed the long driveway around to a gray stone house set apart from the other buildings within the confines of the priory walls. They swung down from the saddle and tied their mounts to the rail out front. Together, they walked up to the entryway, where Kyle knocked on a solid oak door hinged with bronze.
A monk in a brown robe opened the door and waited courteously for Kyle to speak.
Kyle’s greeting faltered at the sight of the monk’s face. It was the kind of face he would hate to meet in a dark alley.
The man’s nose was flat, as though broken from pummeling with a fist. His gray eyes tilted down slightly at the corners, and old scars marred his forehead and cheeks, as though he came out on the losing end of a knife fight. Other than possessing a face that could frighten small children, he was polite and friendly, welcoming the visitors with a broad smile.
“Brother Thomas,” John said. “How fare ye today?”
“Much better, thanks to you,” Brother Thomas said.
“Is the prior in?” Kyle said, trying not to stare. He absently reached up to finger the scar on his own face.
Brother Thomas stepped aside to let them enter the small receiving chamber. “I shall fetch him directly.” He then withdrew through an interior door and closed it softly behind him.
Half a minute later, Prior Drumlay bustled through the inner door in a jingle of keys. He was a stout Scotsman in his late forties, with wiry gray hair around the tonsure on his head. His brown robe was rumpled and frayed at the hem. Despite his unkempt appearance and brusque manner, he had a reputation for taking good care of the monks under his protection. “Have ye come about the incident last night?” he said with a frown.
“I am here at the behest of Sir Walter Ainslie,” Kyle said. He then told the prior about the body discovered at Black Fell Castle.
The prior’s frown deepened. “Murdered, ye say?”
“What do the Ainslies have to say about it?”
“Sir Walter seemed quite taken aback,” Kyle said. “As for Lady Ornice, I have yet to speak with her. Perhaps after word of the dead man’s description gets out, somebody will come forward with information as to his identity. For the time being, Sir Walter will keep the body in the family crypt. He would like for you to say a proper prayer over the remains.”
“I shall ride out there first thing in the morning,” the prior said. He began to prowl the open floor space, absently fingering the hemp cord around his thick waist. “It is early enough to go now, but there is a more pressing matter that must be addressed. Sir Percy has voiced his determination to make an example of the two men killed during what he calls a ‘botched ambush.’ He says he will hang their bodies from a gibbet on the east road as a warning to all who dare assault English soldiers.”
“That will only stir up trouble,” Kyle said.
The prior ceased his restless pacing. “Ye know it, and I do, too. Those men were not rebels. They intercepted that supply wagon for the food they thought was in it. The English confiscated their property and took away their means of living. Their children were left to starve. What those men did was wrong, but they acted out of desperation. I begged Sir Percy to release the bodies to me for burial, but he outright refused to do it.” He scowled fiercely. “So, now, there will be consequences.”
It was Kyle’s turn to scowl, for any retaliation by the Scottish populace was sure to bring the wrath of the English king down upon them all. Once that came to pass, it was anybody’s guess which side would suffer the greater losses in the inevitable bloodbath to follow.
It was noon the next day by the time Kyle, Joneta, John, and Colina finally made it to the Bull and Bear Tavern—a two-story wooden structure situated on Harbour Street facing the River Ayr. Alleyways on either side separated the public house from the fine stone dwellings beside it.
Inside the tavern, the babble of voices filled the air. Patrons occupied every table in the large room. The windows were open to dispel the haze of smoke from oil lanterns that hung from the ceiling.
Kyle finished the last of the mutton stew infused with onions and savory spices in the wooden trencher before him. “That was really good,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
Word of the flavorsome fare at the Bull and Bear had evidently spread throughout town, for a small crowd of burghers and their families waited just inside the entryway for their turn to partake of the new cook’s tasty offerings.
Kyle glanced over at Joneta, his bride of three months who sat beside him. “But not as good as your stew, dearest.”
“That is kind of you to say so,” Joneta said with a smile. Her green dress set off the golden tan of her complexion, and the white cap on her head covered all but one errant strand of light auburn hair. Her hazel eyes took on a greenish cast in the subdued light coming in through the open windows. “However, my love, I must give credit where credit is due. The cook here certainly knows what he is doing. I wouldn’t mind looking over his shoulder to see how he does it.”
“I agree,” said Colina, who sat across the table from them. Although well past the bloom of youth, she was still an attractive woman, with her light brown hair pulled back from her temples and bound in a single thick braid down her slender back. “He puts me to shame. Of course, it doesn’t take much to do that in my case.” She freely admitted to her penchant for culinary failures, which was why she especially appreciated her beloved husband, John, who ate without complaint whatever she cooked for him.
They all laughed, including Colina. Kyle raised his hand to signal for Aloan the server to bring more ale.
At seventeen years of age, Aloan was as tall as a man. With his gangling build and youthful face, he looked more like fourteen. Dark blue eyes peered out from under tousled hair the color of ripe wheat. Today, instead of his usual smile, there was a morose sadness about him. “Is there anything else I can get for ye?” he said, setting a clay pitcher on the table.
“Not at the moment,” Kyle said.
As he dropped a small coin into Aloan’s waiting hand, a flash of scarlet drew his gaze to the cinch purse tied to the young man’s belt. The pouch was made of tan suede, with a red symbol on the front in the form of a cross with four legs of equal length. Each leg ended with a three-pointed fleur-de-lis. “That is an unusual design.”
“I think so, too,” Aloan said. “Maize did it.” His countenance softened at the mention of her name. “She made the purse for me and painted that image on it.”
Kyle’s gaze flicked to the girl serving a table nearby. She was the same age as Aloan, and though her face was plain, it was not unattractive. She exuded the vitality of youth, with smooth skin, shiny black hair, and a shapely body. The cinch purse dangling from her belt looked exactly like the one Aloan wore, with the same red symbol painted on it. “She did a good job. Speaking of which, so did the cook. Who is he, anyway?”
“That’s him over there,” Aloan said, indicating a short square man with a powerful build and thick black hair touched with gray at the temples. “His name is Rafe. Other than that, I know nothing about him.” He took his leave and moved away to attend to the occupants of another table.
Kyle gazed at Rafe for a moment. The man appeared to be the amiable sort who received with pleasure the compliments bestowed by satisfied patrons on their way out the tavern door. He found it unsettling, however, the way Rafe’s dark eyes scrutinized each face that passed, as though searching for one in particular.
He attributed his unfounded suspicion of the newcomer to being a lawman for too many years. He was about to ask Joneta if she was ready to leave, when a nice-looking young man in a green tunic and matching cap made his way through the tables to an open area against the side wall. He carried a lute in one hand and a small stool in the other.
The murmur of conversation trailed away as the young man settled on the low stool and propped the lute on his knee. With nimble fingers, he plucked at the strings, producing dulcet sounds that flowed like warm honey over those in attendance. He closed his eyes and launched into a song of love and loss that wrung the heart with plaintive words. The haunting strains filled every corner of the room.
Kyle listened to the melancholic lyrics, impressed with the young man’s talent as compared to other balladeers he’d heard in the past. This one possessed a rare skill that could only come from natural ability. The melody shifted smoothly to a lively tune that made him tap his foot in time.
The young man sang a few more songs. At the end of the musical session, he rose to his feet and bowed to his audience. As the onlookers cheered, he removed the cap covering his blond hair and held it out before him to receive monetary contributions.
Several burghers stepped forward to drop a coin into the proffered cap. The hum of conversation resumed, as did the hefting of tankards and the clink of pewter vessels.
“That was wonderful,” Joneta said, clapping her hands in delight.
“He does have a gift,” Kyle said. “What is his name?”
“Harrel, isn’t it?” John said, glancing at Colina, who nodded her head. “The tavern keeper hired him and that new cook to draw in more business.”
Kyle took a wide measuring look at the crowded tables around him. “It appears his plan has met with success. This is the busiest I’ve ever seen this place.”
At that moment, Vinewood appeared at Kyle’s elbow. “Pardon the interruption,” he said, with an apologetic nod to Joneta. To Kyle, he said, “Sir Percy wants you to attend him at once.”
Kyle rose to his feet. “I don’t know how long this will take,” he said to Joneta.
“We’re going to the market place when we leave here,” she said. “Come look for us there when ye’re done.”
Kyle voiced his agreement before he followed Vinewood across the floor and out the door.
A bank of gray clouds overhead blotted out the early afternoon sun. The chill in the air felt sharper and more penetrating after the warmth inside. They retrieved their horses from the tavern stable and set out down Harbour Street for the garrison.
Leafless trees populated the verge between the street and the river. The flowing water beyond took on a grayish cast that reflected the sullen mood of the leaden sky.
When they reached the garrison, they crossed the drawbridge. As they rode into the courtyard within the curtain wall, they met a small troop of mounted soldiers on their way out.
They continued on to the garrison stable, which was an elongated low-roofed building open at both ends, with a center aisle between the stalls on each side. Gaps under the eaves let in light and fresh air.
“Have you heard anything about an ambush on an English supply wagon?” Kyle said.
“That is all everyone talked about this morning,” Vinewood said. “Of the four men who sought to capture such a wagon last night, the two who were killed in the fray were identified as Scotsmen by their garb. No one has come forward as yet to collect their bodies for burial.”
“If they did,” Kyle said, “they would run the risk of being accused of consorting with rebels.”
“That is reason enough for not rushing to claim the bodies,” Vinewood said.
Kyle had known Vinewood for only seven months, yet it was adequate time to notice that the young English soldier disapproved of the way his own countrymen bullied and harassed people of Scottish descent. It made little difference that there were other Englishmen who shared Vinewood’s sympathies, for in this corner of Scotland there were still too few men of like sentiment to influence the majority.
After feeding and watering the gelding, Kyle made his way over to the main hall of the garrison castle, where he went inside and climbed the stairs to the second floor. At the end of the hallway, he knocked on the doorjamb to gain the attention of the black-robed clerk who sat at a small table in the anteroom. “Sir Percy sent for me.”
The clerk, a man in his fifties, glanced up from writing on a sheet of vellum. Tufts of ginger hair shot with gray stuck out from under the black felt skullcap on his head. “Ah, Master Shaw,” he said with a Cornish accent. “A moment, if you please.”
After sticking his quill pen in the holder before him, he got up from his stool and went into Sir Percy’s office to announce the visitor. “You may enter,” he said upon his return.
“Thank you, Nicholas,” Kyle said. He walked into the large office beyond the anteroom.
Because the window was open, the room was so cold that his breath came out in a white cloud. The lighted brazier beside the marble-topped desk in the center of the floor did little to dispel the chill in the air. There was a pitcher and wash basin on a small table by the wall, and a large storage trunk in the corner.
Sir Percy sat at his desk, wrapped in a dark blue wool cloak that covered his body all the way down to his black leather boots. At the age of twenty-four years, he bore heavy responsibilities as the castellan of Ayr and warden of Galloway, a prestigious position bestowed upon him by the King of England to keep civil order in the western lowlands of Scotland.
At that moment, Sir Percy’s cherubic features were set in a scowl. His expression grew more forbidding at the sight of the Scots deputy advancing on him. “Sit,” he barked. He extricated a hand from the folds of his cloak to wave at a pair of high-backed carved wooden chairs in front of his desk.
Kyle settled on the chair nearest to him. “You sent for me, m’lord?”
“I take it you heard about last night’s incident.”
“I did. I am a little sketchy on the details, though.”
“What more is there to know?” Sir Percy said. “Rebels beset my supply wagon. Of the four involved in the attempt, two were killed. I sent out a patrol in search of the two who got away.” He pounded his desk with his fist. “I will put an end to these unprovoked attacks.”
“What do you propose to do?”
“I have already done it. The carpenters have been dispatched to build a scaffold at the edge of town. Upon its completion, the bodies in my custody shall be hung from it to deter others of that ilk from defying my authority.”
“Are you not concerned that taking such a stance might trigger reprisal?”
An unpleasant smile replaced the scowl on Sir Percy’s face. “I expect there will be some adverse reaction from the locals. That is where you come in. It is your job to keep civil disorder to a minimum and arrest all who foment rebellion.”
“It seems more prudent not to stir folks up in the first place,” Kyle said.
“I will deal with the rebels,” Sir Percy said. He parted his cloak with a flourish and got up to walk over to the window. He stood there for a moment, gazing down into the courtyard below. “You just do what you are paid to do. No more. No less.”
“It is the innocent who suffer when there is trouble,” Kyle said. “In light of that, I hope you reconsider your decision.” He knew any attempt to dissuade Sir Percy was useless, but he at least had to try.
Sir Percy swung around to face him. “My mind is set on it. When I find the two rebels who got away, they shall suffer the same fate.”
“Rest assured, m’lord,” Kyle said. “I will do my part to keep the peace.”
“I expect no less from you,” Sir Percy said. “You may go.” He turned to stare out the window once again.
Kyle rose to his feet and took his leave with a burdened heart and mind. Sir Percy was answerable only to his king, which meant there was no other person in this shire of higher rank to whom to appeal in order to turn the castellan aside from such a dangerous and possibly inflammatory undertaking.
As he walked through the anteroom, he glanced over at Nicholas.
From the expression on the clerk’s face, it looked like the man had something to say, yet he seemed reluctant to say it with Sir Percy so near as to overhear every word.
Kyle paused with the intention of providing the clerk with an opportunity to meet with him later in the day, if indeed that was what the man wanted to do. “Have you eaten at the tavern recently? The food is much better there now, thanks to the new cook.”
“So I heard,” Nicholas said, holding his gaze.
“You should try it.”
“I will, then,” Nicholas said. “After vespers tonight.”
“Good,” Kyle said with a nod. “You won’t be disappointed.”
Although Kyle’s contact with Nicholas was limited, the man always treated him with courtesy. Still, Nicholas was English by birth and a subject of Edward of England, which made him wonder even more what the man had to say that could not be spoken aloud within Sir Percy’s hearing. He would certainly make it a point to go to the tavern after vespers to find out.
He continued on his way out the door and down the corridor. When he reached the staircase, he descended to the main hall, which was empty at that time of day. He hurried out the front door into the open courtyard and strode toward the garrison gates, bound for the market grounds in the hope of catching up with Joneta before she went home.
The marketplace, which was situated on the sandy patch of ground between the garrison and the priory, was rife with sights, sounds, and scents. The rows between the colorful stalls bustled with townsfolk and off-duty soldiers. Merchants and vendors hawked their wares under striped canopies. Peddlers haggled with customers reluctant to part with their money. A juggler entertained passersby in the hope of earning half a penny. From the confines of wicker coops, chickens squawked and geese honked. Pigs in sturdy pens grunted and grubbed for food in empty troughs. Ever-present stray dogs gathered around food carts, ready to wolf down scraps that fell to the ground. Children shouted and chased each other with glee. The smell of roasted mutton and fried meat pies filled the air, as did the stench of animal droppings. A goat tethered behind a nearby cart added its own pungent flavor to the mix.
Kyle threaded a path through merchant stalls presenting goods from foodstuffs to weaponry and everything in between. As he walked, his idle gaze roved over the crowd in search of Joneta.
He was skirting a dog cart that blocked his path when he noticed a bearded man with dark eyes traveling on a parallel course with him. It was not unusual for him to be the object of attention, for he towered head and shoulders above people of average height. This particular man, however, followed his passage with such interest that he felt compelled to find out why. The instant he altered his course to head in the man’s direction, the man vanished behind a vendor’s stall.
As it happened, Joneta was standing by that same stall, looking at a selection of fabric with Colina. Kyle went over to join them, keeping an eye out for the bearded man in case he reappeared.
John, who hung a pace behind the women with a basket of fresh greens in his hand, looked really glad to see him. “What took ye so long?”
“I walked here,” Kyle said.
“What did Sir Percy have to say?”
“He plans to expose the bodies of those dead men to the ravens.”
John shook his head. “What a foolish thing to do. The kinfolk of those poor unfortunates will take it as a personal affront. No telling what they will do about it.”
“Sir Percy seemed determined to maintain the upper hand in the matter,” Kyle said. “He evidently does not want to appear weak or ineffectual to either us or his own troops.”
“That may be so,” John said, “but I cannot approve of the way he is going about it.”
The four of them drifted farther along the row. The two women walked together, with Kyle and John trailing along behind them.
“Did you get a chance to work on that scrap of parchment from Black Fell Castle?” Kyle said.
“I treated it with a bit of oil to soften it,” John said. “That should keep it from cracking when ye unfold it.”
“If there was writing on it, won’t the oil cause the ink to run together?”
“I used very little oil on it. It should be all right.”
“I’ll drop by later to see how it’s coming along,” Kyle said.
By that time, they had drawn abreast of Hagan the chandler’s booth, where the sweet scent of beeswax hung in the air. John and Colina continued on, while Kyle and Joneta stopped to look at the assortment of candles laid out on the wooden counter. Some were tapered and thin, while others were short and chunky.
“Good day to you,” Hagan said with an amiable smile that exposed a small gap between his two front teeth. He was a homely man in his late forties with thinning hair and brown eyes. With a sweep of his hand, he gestured to the diverse collection on display. “Do you see anything you like?”
“I like them all,” Joneta said. After looking over the selection offered, she touched a thick candle with six notches at intervals along its length, which was designed to mark the passage of time in one-hour increments. “How much is this one?”
“Half a penny,” Hagan said.
“That is too little for a candle this size,” she said.
“It has a slight defect at the base, so I cannot sell it for full price,” Hagan said.
She picked up the candle and inspected the flaw. “It is barely noticeable. I would love to take it, but I feel like I’m stealing from ye by paying only half a penny.”
“How about this, then?” Hagan said. “Since it is for you, it is free. Now there is no need to fret about the cost.”
“Thank ye so much,” she said with a dazzling smile. “How kind ye are.”
Hagan blushed all the way to the tips of his ears. “I hope your husband does not mind my giving it to you.” His questioning brown eyes shifted from her to Kyle.
“Not a bit,” Kyle said with a smile. He liked the reserved little man, whom he knew to be fair and honest in his business dealings with others. To Joneta, he said, “Why don’t you pick out another one you like, which I shall, of course, purchase at full price to keep the generous Master Hagan from going completely broke.”
He chatted with the chandler while Joneta perused the collection of candles. Once she made her choice, he paid for it, after which the two of them bade the man good-bye and moved on down the row to catch up with John and Colina.
They strolled around the market grounds for a while longer. When they stopped at the baker’s cart to purchase sweet cakes, the sound of a man’s voice raised in anger drew their attention.
It was common enough for a vendor or a peddler to shout at a mischievous child on occasion. The tone of this man’s voice, though, had a menacing edge to it.
Several yards off the public pathway, Harrel the balladeer and Maize, the serving girl from the tavern, stood toe to toe in the narrow aisle between two canopied stalls. His face was flushed, though not from the chill in the autumn air. Her face looked pale and drawn above her long gray cloak.
Vinewood, who evidently also heard the shouts, stepped out from behind a nearby stall and walked over to stand beside Maize. “Is that fellow bothering you?” he said to her.
Harrel’s gaze shifted to Vinewood. “Ye better move on if ye know what’s good for ye,” he said in a threatening tone.
Vinewood took a step closer, clearly not intimidated by the balladeer who towered half a head over him. “Why would I do that?” he said, his lips drawn tight. “I just got here.”
“And now ye can leave,” Harrel said, sneering.
Vinewood clenched his fists, ready to throw a punch.
Maize touched Vinewood’s arm to stop him from starting a fight. “It’s best if ye do as he says.” She looked embarrassed that he witnessed such a scene between Harrel and her.
Harrel lifted his eyes to gaze over Vinewood’s head. When he spotted Kyle standing among the small group of people looking on, his belligerent countenance changed to apprehension, as though it made him uneasy to attract the notice of a man of law. “This isn’t over,” he said to Maize. He turned on his heel and pushed his way through those gathered there.
“What was that about?” Vinewood said.
“It’s nothing,” Maize said with a tight smile, her hands knotted together at her slender waist, as if to keep them from shaking.
“Let me escort you home, then,” Vinewood said. “In case he tries to bother you again.”
“Don’t distress yerself on my account,” Maize said. “I’ll be fine on my own.” She hastened away without a backward glance, headed for Harbour Street.
Vinewood followed her with his eyes until a row of stalls hid her from view. The expression on his face left no doubt of his concern for her safety.