The slanting rays of the rising sun penetrated the gloom beneath the wharf on the south bank of the River Ayr. Light shimmered on the glassy surface of the water, broken only by eddies swirling around the timber piers supporting the long wooden dock.
The body of a dead man bobbed gently between two of those stout piers. He floated facedown in the water, his arms splayed, his russet cloak snagged on a rope securing one of the fishing boats moored there.
Kyle Shaw, deputy to the sheriff of Ayrshire, swung down from the saddle and went over to join Vinewood and Hoprig on the wharf. He towered head and shoulders above both English soldiers, owing his lofty stature to his Viking forebears, who also endowed him with tawny hair and blue eyes as pale as a northern sky.
He leaned out over the edge to peer down at the body. “Fetch him ashore, will you?”
Vinewood and Hoprig walked up the wharf until they came to the place where they could descend to the river that flowed into the Firth of Clyde a short distance away. They waded in waist-deep water to reach the dead man. Only the ebb of the firth’s outgoing tide enabled them to gain access to the body trapped under the dock.
Hoprig disentangled the cloak from around the water-stiffened rope, while Vinewood hung onto the dead man’s belt to keep him from being swept out to sea. When the body swung free, the pair of them towed it upriver for several yards to a sandy place where they could drag it onto the bank.
Water streamed from their clothing and that of the drowned man as they hoisted the dead weight of the body up the gentle slope. They laid it on the embankment just as they’d found it in the river, face downward.
Kyle descended the river bank to look at the body. He went down on one knee in the damp grass to draw aside the sodden cloak, which was cold to the touch and reeked with the smell of the river. There were no slashes or other indications of violence on the garment that he could readily see.
“Help me turn him over,” he said to Vinewood.
He and the young soldier laid hands on the rigid limbs to roll the body onto its back.
Kyle gazed at the dead man lying in uneasy repose on the lush carpet of green clover. There was no sign of bloating on the lean features, nor had the crabs started in on him yet. That meant he went into the water late on Sunday, perhaps during the early hours on Monday.
The upturned face was clean-shaven in the Norman fashion. The high-bridged patrician nose and the stubborn chin laid claim to that same heritage. Thin lips tinged with blue framed the slack mouth, and sightless gray eyes stared up at the cloudless sky. His complexion, tanned deep gold by the summer sun, seemed unaffected by the pallor of death. His gray hair, now slick with water, put him at or near fifty years of age. He appeared to be a tall man, though with his body stretched out on the ground, it was difficult to gauge his actual height. He wore a jacket-like cotte of dark green velvet, with leggings to match. An oak-leaf-and-acorn pattern decorated the tooled leather belt around his waist. A polished carnelian adorned the hilt of the dagger in the silver sheath attached to the belt.
There was no doubt in Kyle’s mind that this was a man of means, but the question of his identity remained unanswered. A cursory inspection of the front of the body presented no reason to suspect foul play. Perhaps the drowning was accidental, after all.
That conclusion only opened the door to still more unanswered questions. Did the man fall into the river? Did the undertow suck him down to his death? Was he pushed in? Why did he not cry for help? How did he fetch up here under the busiest wharf in the port town of Ayr? Where was the ever-present squire or servant who accompanied his lord on every outing?
As Kyle pondered these and other questions, a handful of fishermen from the harbor collected around the dead man sprawled on the riverbank. Their occupation was by nature perilous, and thus, drowning was a fate that might befall any one of them at any time. They shook their heads and murmured among themselves, yet not a single one came forward to name the victim.
Kyle closed the staring gray eyes with his thumb and forefinger. He unpinned the brooch that fastened the soggy folds of the russet cloak at the dead man’s neck, after which he removed the cloak to cover the body with it.
He rose to his feet and brushed away the bits of sand and grass that clung to his brown leggings. The brooch in his hand was a simple affair in the form of a bronze ring and a pin. The flat part of the pin and the face of the ring were decorated with the same oak-leaf-and-acorn pattern that was imprinted on the leather belt. He tucked the piece into the pouch at his side for safekeeping.
The clop of hooves on the cobblestone street brought his head around.
The blacksmith approached the scene on a dappled gray horse. He was a great bear of a man, big-boned with broad shoulders and powerful arms suited to his craft. His sleeveless brown tunic, belted at the waist, reached to midthigh on his muscular legs.
“Macalister,” Kyle said by way of greeting. “Where are you bound at this early hour?”
Macalister reined in and rested his forearms on the saddle bow. “The garrison stable,” he said. “Sir Percy wants me to look over the horses.” His brown eyes settled on the shrouded form on the ground. “Who have ye there?”
“I’m not sure,” Kyle said. “We just pulled him from the river.”
“More than likely.”
Macalister grunted. “I’ll take their trade, but I won’t mourn their passing,” he said, his bearded face grim. “I’ll leave ye to it, my friend.” He nudged the gray horse in the belly with his heels and continued down Harbour Street toward the garrison gates.
Kyle thought nothing of Macalister’s remark. Most Scots hated the English, whose unwanted occupation of Scotland for the past ten years had brought hardship and oppression.
Early in that period of unrest, King Balliol of Scotland led a revolt against Edward of England. The uprising soon ended with Balliol’s capture and imprisonment in the Tower of London. Without a king on the Scottish throne to oppose him, King Edward saw his way clear to claim feudal overlordship of Scotland. As such, he would receive a substantial portion of the taxes collected, in addition to utilizing Scotland’s natural resources.
The Scots were willing to comply with the English king’s material demands upon them, since they were already bound by law to pay their taxes. However, the King of England did not take into consideration the loyalty of the Scottish populace to the imprisoned king. When Edward demanded fealty from them as well, he only heaped fuel on the fires of rebellion.
A small crowd had gathered nearby to gawk at the body. Among them was a thin man of indeterminate age in dun-colored homespun, with dark eyes and a crooked nose in his long face. He kept glancing around, as though looking for someone in particular. He seemed relieved when a man in a brown tunic walked up to stand next to him.
The newcomer was a lean man in his thirties. Fine white mud smudged the front of his clothing. His coloring was like cast bronze, his nose curved like the blade of a scimitar. His hooded eyes were golden brown, like those of a hawk, with a gaze as direct and fearless as that bird of prey. His close-cropped black hair gleamed with blue highlights in the early morning light. He looked out of place among the fair-skinned Scottish folk around him.
Kyle singled out the thin man with the crooked nose for questioning, mostly because of the nervous sweat that slicked his brow. “What is your name?”
“Simon,” he said, fidgeting with the knot in the hemp rope that served as a belt around his narrow waist.
“Did you see anything out of the ordinary around here earlier?” Kyle said.
“Nay,” Simon said, licking his lips. “I didn’t see nothing.”
“How about you?” Kyle said to the swarthy man in the brown tunic. “Did you notice any strangers hanging around the dock shortly before dawn?”
“Not that I recall,” the man said. He spoke in a melodious voice with a hint of a foreign accent.
“What is your name?” Kyle said.
“Turval,” he said, regarding him steadily.
“I know you,” Kyle said. His eyes flicked briefly to the streaks of dried mud on the man’s tunic. “You’re the potter.”
“So I am,” Turval said with a slight smile. He waved a careless hand at the smudges on his clothing. “You must excuse my appearance. It is a hazard of my trade. I have a stall at the marketplace where I sell my wares. You might have seen me there.”
“Maybe so,” Kyle said. He let his gaze wander over the others looking on. Their expressions ranged from curiosity to puzzlement, which convinced him that none of them knew anything about either the dead man or how he ended up in the river. “Sergeant,” he said, catching Vinewood’s eye. “See if you can find a cart to transport the body, will you?”
“Aye,” Vinewood said. He hurried off on foot to do as he was bidden, leaving behind a trail of water dripping from his black leather jerkin and gray woolen leggings.
Kyle liked the personable young man. Women liked Vinewood, too, because of his handsome face, engaging smile, and seductive brown eyes. By contrast, Hoprig was a dour fellow around his own age of thirty-three, slight of build, with reddish-blond hair, blue eyes, and sharp features in a lean face.
Kyle noticed Hoprig gazing down at the shrouded form, his fair brows locked in a pensive knot.
That was nothing unusual, for Hoprig’s face was normally set in a habitual frown. This time, however, the frown seemed deeper and more thoughtful.
“Do you recognize him?” Kyle said, his pale blue eyes on Hoprig.
“Maybe,” Hoprig said, as though unwilling to commit in the event he was wrong. He dropped to one knee and turned back the corner of the cloak to peer at the waxen features. “He puts me in mind of the Rylands. I don’t know which one this is, though.”
“How many are there?” Kyle said.
“Let me see,” Hoprig said, ticking their number on his fingers. “There is Sir Fulbert, the master of Cragston Castle. There is his brother, Sir Humphrey. Then, there is his son, Sir Peter.” He shook his head emphatically. “He’s much too old for Sir Peter, so this must be Sir Fulbert.” He dropped the corner of the cloak in place and climbed to his feet. “Or his brother,” he added in a tone that indicated it was possible, but not probable.
“I don’t know much about Sir Humphrey,” Kyle said. “I did hear about Sir Fulbert and his heroic exploits in the Holy Land during the last crusade.”
He also heard that Sir Fulbert Ryland was an English nobleman who held Scottish lands granted to him for services rendered to Edward of England. If the drowned man was indeed Sir Fulbert, he was rather far from home, for Cragston Castle was located four miles south of Ayr on the western coast of the lowlands. With the Scottish populace chafing under the harsh yoke of English domination and rebel activity on the rise, it was no surprise that an Englishman had turned up dead. Yet, there was nothing here to suggest that a crime had actually been committed.
“That’s what they say about him,” Hoprig said.
“And you don’t believe it?” Kyle said.
Hoprig turned on him, his expression harsh and bleak. “My father went on that crusade with Sir Fulbert and the others. The things he saw there haunted him for the rest of his days.”
“What sort of things?” Kyle said, his interest piqued.
The rumble of wooden wheels on cobblestones effectively interrupted their conversation.
Vinewood and two local men in homespun tunics were coming up the street, pushing before them an empty flat-bed cart commonly used to haul sacks of milled grain. They came to a grinding halt close to where Kyle stood on the bank of the river.
“It was the best I could do on short notice,” Vinewood said, dusting the flour residue from his hands. “I thought I could hitch my horse to it and pull it around to St. John’s.”
“That ought to work,” Kyle said. He turned to Hoprig. “Ride over to John Logan’s shop and have him meet us at the priory as soon as he can get there.”
Hoprig nodded, rather than verbally acknowledging the direct order given to him by the Scots deputy to whom he had been assigned. Silence was evidently his way of defying the tall, tawny-haired Scotsman’s authority without being overtly disrespectful. There was apparently nothing personal in his animosity. Being English, he treated everyone of Scottish descent the same way. In addition, the wet clothing flapping around his legs did little to improve his mood. He trudged up the embankment toward a chestnut mare with a cream-colored mane and tail. His waterlogged boots made a squishing sound with each step he took.
Vinewood and the townsmen with him descended the slope to pick up the body. They carried it back to the cart, where they laid it on the flat wooden bed. Vinewood then buckled his horse into the traces and gathered the reins in his hand, ready to move out at Kyle’s signal.
Now that the excitement was over, Simon and Turval drifted away with the other onlookers. The fishermen went back to their boats to mend torn nets or sharpen fishhooks in preparation for the next outing on the firth.
Kyle climbed into the saddle and urged his sorrel gelding to walk forward. He set out up Harbour Street ahead of the cart, bound for St. John’s on the far side of the marketplace situated on the open stretch of sandy ground between the wall of the priory and the wall of the English garrison.
Good news was known to spread swiftly. Bad news, it seemed, traveled even faster. Customers at the marketplace early on Monday morning had apparently heard about the drowning, and for a brief moment, they turned their backs on the lure of colorful stalls and striped canopies. They lined up on either side of Harbour Street, standing shoulder to shoulder with merchants and vendors, peddlers and traders, to watch the horse-drawn cart jounce past them over the uneven cobbles. Even children paused at play to stare at the body swathed in russet fabric.
At first, only the two townsmen who helped Vinewood load the body trailed behind the cart. Soon, others joined them, so that the procession grew larger with each passing moment. When they reached the priory, Kyle led them through the open gates in the precinct wall. He reined in at the gatehouse and dismounted as the porter, a rotund monk clad in a long brown robe, came out into the bright morning sunshine to greet him.
“Good morrow, Master Deputy,” the porter said with solemnity appropriate to the occasion. “It is a sad day, indeed, for the poor fellow. Ye may bring him to the mortuary chapel.” He waved a hand in the direction of the large red sandstone edifice with the lofty bell tower that dominated the priory grounds. “Ye know the way.”
Vinewood tugged on the reins, and his horse obliged by leaning against the harness. Those behind the cart pushed on the wagon bed until the solid wooden wheels, which were sunk to the hub in the deep gravel in the entryway, rolled forward.
“I’m glad you’re back,” Vinewood said to Kyle, who fell in step beside him with the gelding in tow.
Six weeks earlier, Kyle traveled to Aberdeen to visit Joneta, a lovely widow with whom he’d fallen in love. He only meant to stay for a few days. While he was there, though, Joneta’s mother-in-law died. The woman was quite elderly and suffered from a terminal illness, so her death was not wholly unexpected. He stayed for the burial, after which he brought Joneta and her five-month-old baby back to Ayr with him. Upon their arrival yesterday afternoon, he took her to her house a couple of miles down the coast. He went on to the sheriff’s office, which was located within the walls of Ayr Garrison, and fell into bed, exhausted from the long journey. That was where he remained until roused from his sleep a little more than an hour ago.
“Did anything happen during my absence that I should know about?” he said.
“Sir Percy finally appointed a new captain of horse,” Vinewood said.
“What is he like?”
“He’s tough and demanding. Suspicious, too. He’s the sort who sees a rebel around every corner.”
“Unfortunately for the new captain of horse, there is a rebel around every corner these days. What is his name?”
An involuntary groan escaped from Kyle’s lips.
“I take it you know him,” Vinewood said, eyeing the pained expression on the deputy’s face.
“That is putting it mildly,” Kyle said. “While I was courting Ada Monroe, he pestered her with his attentions, unwelcome though they were to her. After we married, he never passed up an opportunity to corner her, just to talk, or so he claimed. She refused to let me ‘persuade’ him to leave her alone. She knew I would get into trouble if I laid a hand on an officer in the king’s army. We ended up moving inland to get away from him.”
A thoughtful expression crossed Vinewood’s handsome face. “That explains his undue interest when Sir Percy mentioned your appointment here as deputy.”
“Really?” Kyle said. “All of that happened over fifteen years ago. Besides, Ada has been dead for six years now.”
“I’m sorry,” Vinewood said.
“I am, too,” Kyle said grimly.
The two of them walked in silence as they led the procession up the long driveway and around to the mortuary chapel built against the back of the church.
They stopped before the arched door barring entry to the chapel. The solid oaken panels below the pointed arch were stained green with lichens that blended into the verdant surroundings.
The chapel itself was made of quarried stone, with a thick layer of sod covering its sloping roof. It huddled in the shadows without windows or other apertures, which by design kept the interior cool, even on hot summer days.
Those in the procession broke ranks to form a half circle around the cart. They all watched as two monks in long brown robes strode purposefully across the priory yard toward the chapel. The younger trod beside the older, who carried under his arm a folded cloth of unbleached linen and whose keys clanked with each step.
“Prior Drumlay,” Kyle said as the older monk drew near. “I trust you are well.”
Prior Drumlay ignored the greeting. “Master Shaw,” he said with a downward turn of his narrow, implacable mouth. “So, ye came back, did ye?” He was a cantankerous Scotsman in his late forties. Despite the untidy gray tonsure and frayed robe draped around his compact body, there was an astute intelligence in the gray eyes staring out from under bristling brows. Even though his manner was brusque, he had a reputation for being a good administrator over the priory and a good shepherd to the fourteen monks in his care.
“Of course I came back,” Kyle said. “This is my home.”
Prior Drumlay glanced over at the body on the cart. “Who do ye have there?”
“A nobleman, by the look of him,” Kyle said.
“One of ours?” the prior said. He looked concerned.
“He’s English,” Kyle said.
The prior appeared relieved. “No sense in leaving him out in this heat.” He selected one of the keys on the iron ring at his waist and turned it in the latch to open the chapel door. He handed the bundle of linen to the young monk, who went over to the cart to unfold the cloth beside the body along its length.
Kyle stepped forward to lend a hand in shifting the dead man onto the long cloth. He and the young monk each took an end and lifted the body clear of the wooden bed. They carried it through the arched doorway and set it gently on the table-like slab of stone in the middle of the square chamber.
The chapel felt refreshingly cool after the warmth outside. The odor of stale incense masked the dank earthy smell within. There was an iron lampstand in the corner, and a door on the far wall provided access to the church vestry. A gray and white granite altar stood against a side wall, and a tiny vessel on its polished surface emitted a greenish glow that disappeared in the muted daylight coming through the open door. Sturdy timber beams supported the heavy sod roof above the slanted ceiling. The four stone walls were bare, except for the wooden crucifix that hung over the altar.
When Kyle and the young monk stepped back outside, the prior shut the chapel door behind them without locking it.
Since there was now nothing more to see, the onlookers lost interest and began to shuffle away. Vinewood departed with them to return the borrowed cart to its owner.
“It’s too dark in there for Master John to examine the body,” Kyle said to the prior. “He will need a proper light.”
The prior scowled, as though he was about to disagree. After a moment, he jerked his head meaningfully at the young monk, who hastened away in obedience to the unspoken command.
The young monk returned before long with a lighted clay cresset suspended from a thin chain.
A few minutes later, Vinewood and Hoprig rode up to the chapel and swung down from their saddles.
John Logan followed close behind the two English soldiers on an old brown mule. He was a good-looking man in his early fifties, with a full head of steel-gray hair and shrewd green eyes. His tan linen tunic was bound at the waist with a leather belt. As he slid from the battered saddle, Prior Drumlay welcomed him with a smile.
It was obvious the prior liked the apothecary, who used his knowledge of herbs and medicines to help the poor in the shire as well as the rich.
After exchanging a polite greeting with the prior, John unhooked the strap of his leather medicament bag from around the saddle bow and slung it over his shoulder. “How was yer journey?” he said to Kyle.
“Long, but entirely agreeable,” Kyle said. “Joneta and her wee bairn traveled back with me.”
“What about her mother-in-law?”
“She passed away five weeks ago.”
“Ah, well,” John said with a nod of sympathy. “It’s a wonder she lived as long as she did.” He tilted his head toward the mortuary chapel. “Is it truly Sir Fulbert in there?”
“Possibly,” Kyle said. “Hoprig seems to think so.”
“Lead the way, then,” John said, with a sweep of his hand toward the arched door.
“Give the fire holder to me, brother,” Prior Drumlay said to the young monk. “Then you may go.”
The young monk handed over the clay cresset without a word and scurried away.
The prior opened the chapel door and went inside, with Kyle and John on his heels.
Kyle once again caught a glimpse of the elusive radiance that vanished before his eyes. He walked over to the altar to inspect the contents of the tiny vessel, which looked like fine powder. “I know I saw a light over here,” he said, puzzled.
“You did,” John said. “The monks call it cold fire. They use it in this chapel because it glows in the dark without heat.”
“How clever,” Kyle said with appreciation.
The prior hung the lighted cresset on the iron lampstand, which he moved closer to the table. Yellow light from the burning wick illuminated not only the shrouded form, but every corner of the small chamber.
John removed the russet cloak from over the body, folded it, and set it aside. The rigor gripping the limbs made it difficult for him to undress the dead man, so after removing the belt, he slit the clothing from neck to groin with his dagger. He laid back the green velvet cotte to expose the vest-like garment beneath, which was woven from the coarse hair of goats. Red patches riddled the chest and stomach area where the prickly fibers irritated the skin. “What have we here?”
“That is a hair shirt,” the prior said, crossing himself. “This man was a true penitent, a Southron though he be.” He crossed himself again. “God rest his soul.”
It was common for a monk or a priest to repent of past sins by wearing under his robe a shirt made of scratchy fibers or bristly animal hair. A cleric so disposed might also fast at length to mortify the flesh, or flagellate his own back by using a whip with metal shards tied to the end of each leather strip. However, nothing in the dead man’s possessions indicated that he had taken holy orders.
As Kyle looked on, he wondered at the nature of the sins that warranted such drastic measures for atonement. Did the man indulge in lustful behavior? Was he a glutton or a greedy person? Or was he guilty of something far more serious? Murder, perhaps?
With the prior’s assistance, John stripped off the rest of the clothing, until the body lay naked before them.
Kyle watched with interest as John began his examination.
John inspected the front and sides of the body, looking for fresh cuts, grazes, or bruises among long-healed battle scars on the expanse of bare skin. Except for red prickles from the hair shirt, he found nothing worthy of notice. When he rolled the body over, the movement caused clear water to dribble forth from the dead man’s mouth.
They all saw the large purple bruise at the same time. It lay between the shoulder blades on the broad back.
“That is about the size of a man’s knee,” John said, pointing at the affected area.
“What are you suggesting?” the prior said.
“That this drowning may not be accidental,” John said. “The placement of the bruise that high on his back suggests someone knelt upon him, using their own weight to hold him under the water.”
“He’s a big fellow,” the prior said. “Would he not be able to throw them off in a struggle?”
“Not if he was unconscious.” John felt around the back of the skull through the wavy gray hair, now dry and springy. “From the size of the lump here, it appears someone knocked him on the head before they forced him under.”
Kyle’s thoughts harkened back to the hair shirt. Did the man, indeed, reap what he sowed in that he’d killed someone, which in turn, brought about his own death? Or was there a simpler, more plausible explanation? “There was no coin purse on him when we found him. Maybe he was the target of a robbery gone awry.” His gaze shifted to the dagger protruding from the silver sheath on top of the velvet garments. “Or maybe not,” he added, touching the reddish-brown carnelian set in the hilt. “Any thief worth his salt would never forego such a prize as this.”
John made no reply, for he was staring down at the body, as though lost in thought.
“Is there something more?” Kyle said.
“When I first rolled him over,” John said, “water should have gushed from his mouth. If he was dead before he went into the river, there would be no water in him at all. A trickle like that might result from an obstruction in his throat.” He turned the body face up on the table and pried the stiff jaws apart with his thumbs. He tilted the head toward the light to look into the cavity of the mouth. “Just as I thought. There’s something down there.” He glanced over at the prior. “I will need tongs to reach it.”
“I shall get them for ye,” Prior Drumlay said. He withdrew in a jingle of keys through the door to the church on the inside wall of the chapel.
“Can you make out what it is?” Kyle said, leaning over to peer into the gaping mouth.
“It’s green, like some sort of frond,” John said.
“Perhaps he drew in seaweed as he gasped for breath,” Kyle said.
“Possibly, but only if he regained consciousness before he drowned. In any event, we’ll soon find out.”
“What about the time of death?”
“The rigidity of the limbs would not be an accurate gauge in this case,” John said. “The cold water in the river cooled his body more rapidly than if he had been ashore. Nevertheless, considering the minimal shriveling of his skin and the lack of fish bites on his face and hands, I would say he died between three to four hours ago.”
“That is as I thought,” Kyle said.
John’s clean-shaven face broke into a sudden grin that showed the dimple in his left cheek. “Ye haven’t heard my news. Colina and I are married.”
“Congratulations,” Kyle said with a grin. “I wish both of you every happiness.”
“I wanted to wait until ye got back, but Colina didn’t like staying in that big house alone, with her mother so ill. She says she feels better about it now that I’ve moved in.”
“She wasn’t exactly alone with her brother there.”
“Neyll rode out of town more than a month ago,” John said. “Before he left for parts unknown, he bequeathed a considerable dowry to Colina, along with his permission for her to marry any man of her choosing. He also gave to her, in writing, the ownership of the house and the land, as well as the income from the tenant farmers. She thinks he’s a saint for doing all that for her.”
“A saint!” Kyle cried. He gritted his teeth at the notion, for the man had no qualms about profiting at the expense of his own countrymen or in treating his sister like a prisoner in her own home. The only reason Neyll had abandoned his illegal activities and shown any generosity to his sister at all was because Kyle coerced him into doing so by threatening to publicly expose his illicit affair with another man. “He’s an unscrupulous bastard.”
“I agree,” John said.
“Good riddance to him, now that he’s gone,” Kyle said.
“I agree with that, too,” John said. “However, there is no need to mention any of this to Colina. He is her brother, after all.”
“My lips are sealed on the subject,” Kyle said. An image then popped into his head of the horrid woman whom Neyll hired as a companion for his sister. In reality, the woman spied on Colina’s every move and bullied her like a prison warden. “By the way,” he added. “Is the Housekeeper from Hell still on the premises?”
“Nay,” John said with a chuckle. “Berta left at the same time Neyll did, although I don’t think they went off together, if ye know what I mean.”
“Too bad,” Kyle said. “They deserve each other.”
The door on the church wall creaked open as Prior Drumlay stepped back into the chapel. “Will this do?” he said, holding out a narrow pincer-like instrument.
“That will do nicely,” John said, taking possession of the flat metal tongs. He bent to the task of thrusting them down the dead man’s throat, only to draw forth a bruised yellowish-green sprig trapped between the pincer ends. The small crease between his brows grew deeper at the sight of the tiny elongated leaves on the segmented stem.
“What is it?” Prior Drumlay said.
John brought the tongs close to his nose to give the sprig a tentative sniff. “Unless I am mistaken, this is mistletoe.”
“Lignum sanctae crucis,” Prior Drumlay said, crossing himself.
“I’ve seen folks wearing amulets made from the ‘wood of the holy cross,’ as ye call it,” John said. “They believe talismans like that will cure them of the falling sickness and diseases of the heart.” He laid the sprig on the table and set the tongs beside it. “A dram of powdered mistletoe mixed with water is far more effective in treating those ailments.”
“I thought mistletoe was poisonous,” Kyle said.
“It is,” John said, “which is why it must be measured with care before it is ingested.”
“Was he poisoned, then, before he drowned?” Prior Drumlay said.
“Not with this,” John said. He picked up the sprig and held it between his thumb and forefinger. “It would take a much bigger piece to kill a man his size.”
Kyle frowned at the bruised frond. “Somebody shoved that down his throat. Yet, it was not done to harm him.” He lifted his eyes to John. “So, why do it at all?”
John shrugged his shoulders. “To send a message, perhaps.”
“What kind of message?” Kyle said.
“The kind that would be recognized by someone who knew what it meant,” John said.
“Go on,” Kyle said. “I’m listening.”
“Mistletoe has medicinal properties that are beneficial for patients with certain illnesses,” John said. “However, it is also reputed to possess powers of an arcane nature.”
“Arcane practices are forbidden by the Holy Kirk,” Prior Drumlay interjected, his tone dogmatic.
“So they are,” John said. “In spite of that, there are those who ascribe mystical properties to mistletoe and who harvest it solely for that purpose.”
“Who does that?” Kyle said.
John glanced from Kyle to the prior and back again. “Druids, of course,” he said, his expression grave.
Prior Drumlay drew in a sharp breath, as though horrified by the mere mention of the dreaded sect.
Kyle laughed softly. “That’s what I like about you, John. You have such an imagination.”
“I’m deadly serious,” John said.
“I don’t doubt that at all,” Kyle said, still grinning. “I might point out, though, that not a single druid has been seen in this vicinity for hundreds of years.”
“How else do ye explain the mistletoe?” John said.
“I plan to find that out when I question Sir Fulbert’s kinfolk,” Kyle said.
“Druids are an abomination in the sight of God,” the prior said. “They perform pagan rituals under the cover of darkness in sacred oak groves.” He lowered his voice and added with evident revulsion, “Did you know they practice human sacrifice to their gods and drink the blood of their victims?”
“You seem to know a lot about druids,” Kyle said.
“I do,” the prior said with pride. “If there are any in this shire, I shall do everything in my power to drive them out.” He turned to John. “Have you finished with your examination?”
“I have,” John said. “The body may now be prepared for burial.”
While John put the tools of his trade into his medicament bag, Kyle took another look at the dead man’s leather belt.
The replication of oak leaves and acorns on it, as well as on the brooch, was indeed evocative of sacred oak groves. On the other hand, there was nothing about that motif that suggested bloodthirsty druids.
He rolled up the belt and placed it on top of the folded russet cloak. When he raised his eyes, he caught the I-told-you-so expression on John’s face. He responded with a maybe-so-maybe-not shrug of his broad shoulders and the upturning of his palms.
He and John took their leave of Prior Drumlay and went out through the arched door of the mortuary chapel into the daylight beyond. Both of them were glad to fill their lungs with clean fresh air.
John approached the mule grazing near the chapel wall and captured the trailing reins. “Ye must bring Joneta over to the house for dinner soon,” he said, mounting the docile beast. “Colina would love to see her and the bairn.”
“I’ll do that,” Kyle said. He waved as John set out for the priory gates.
Behind the church, Vinewood and Hoprig lounged in the shade of a beech tree. The horses dozed nearby with their heads bowed to the ground.
The two men got to their feet as Kyle approached.
“I must break the news to Sir Fulbert’s widow,” Kyle said. “But first, I want to go back to the wharf.”
The three of them mounted their horses and rode from the priory grounds. They turned down Harbour Street and threaded their way through pedestrian traffic until they reached the place where the body had been pulled from the river.
“Wait here,” Kyle said, dismounting. He handed the reins to Vinewood before walking over to where Simon worked beside a couple of fishermen who were cleaning last night’s catch.
“Simon,” Kyle said. “Do you remember that fellow we pulled from the river this morning?”
“Of course,” Simon said.
“That was no accidental drowning,” Kyle said.
Simon froze in the middle of scaling a trout. “I don’t know nothing about it,” he said, his eyes wide.
“I’m not accusing you, Simon,” Kyle said. “I just want to know if you saw anybody on the wharf in the early hours of the morning that didn’t belong there.”
Simon shook his head, his eyes fixed on the fish before him. His white knuckles stood out against the stained wooden handle of the scaling knife in his hand.
“If you do happen to recall anything, let me know,” Kyle said.
Simon bobbed his head. It was a jerky movement that seemed more like a nervous twitch than a nod of assent.
Kyle mounted the gelding and set out at a walk up Harbour Street.
“He’s lying,” Vinewood said after a moment.
“He was, indeed,” Kyle said. “I would certainly like to know why.” He glanced over his shoulder in time to see Simon scurrying up the street toward the marketplace. He watched as the man turned onto the market grounds and vanished behind a stall.
They rode down winding streets to the edge of town. The lanes were wider there, lined with wooden houses set farther apart than those in the heart of town. The blacksmith’s shop stood among them, set back from the road. Three well-fed horses tied to the rail out front dozed in the warm sunshine with their heads down.
A large tan dog lay in the side yard gnawing on a bone. A long chain on the beast’s spiked collar secured it to a stout post, around which the ground was worn bare.
When Kyle saw Macalister leading a strawberry roan out from under the low porch of the shop, he turned into the yard and brought the gelding to a halt. “It looks like business is picking up for you, my friend,” he said, tilting his head at the horses at the rail.
“I can’t complain,” Macalister said. “These came from the garrison at Sir Percy’s behest. I’ll be done with them by this afternoon.” He squinted up at Kyle against the morning sun. “Did ye ever find out who it was that drowned?”
“He’s likely one of the Rylands,” Kyle said. “We’re headed out to Cragston Castle now to confirm his identity.”
“I did a bit of trade with that lot last month,” Macalister said, rubbing the roan’s velvety nose. “Their groom brought in a big white destrier that threw a shoe.”
“Did he say anything about the Rylands?” Kyle said.
“He hardly spoke at all,” Macalister said. “He dropped the horse off and came back later in the day to settle up.”
“Ah, well,” Kyle said, taking a deep breath. “I’d best be off. I’ve sad news to deliver to the family.”
“I don’t envy ye that task, even if they are Southrons,” Macalister said. “By the way, I’m going fishing early on the morrow. I found a great spot. It’s a little farther south than I like, but I come back with a full string of fish every time. Do ye want to come along?”
“It sounds tempting,” Kyle said. “However, I must attend to this drowning business at present.”
“Maybe next time, then,” Macalister said.
“I’ll hold you to that,” Kyle said. He turned the gelding’s head toward the street, his hand raised in a parting wave.
He and the two English soldiers left the outskirts of town and headed south along the coastal road under a blue sky without a cloud in sight. A cool breeze from the firth somewhat tempered the heat of the midmorning sun beating down upon them. To the right, the incoming tide rushed up onto a pristine beach that seemed to stretch out for miles in either direction.
Farther along the southern road, bleached sand gave way to mossy boulders and sheer cliffs. The incessant pounding of waves against the rocks sent white spume high into the air. Seagulls wheeled and glided on updrafts over the churning water, screaming and shrieking all the while.
They rode past the ruins of an abandoned castle, a crumbling hulk that was now a mere shadow of the formidable stone structure that once overlooked the crashing surf far below.
Before long, they approached Cragston Castle, which loomed ahead of them on a precipice high above the surging water of the Firth of Clyde. Crenellated parapets jutted up over the thick stone wall surrounding the fortress. A deep ravine formed a natural barrier on the landward side, and the sea barred access from the rear.
As Kyle rode up the causeway leading to the castle, he noticed that the drawbridge was down, the portcullis was up, and the huge outer gates were wide open. The ring of shod hooves on stone should have alerted the gatekeeper of their approach, yet no one challenged them from the watchtower above the arched entryway.
“Looks like nobody’s home,” Hoprig said, stating the obvious.
Kyle halted to scan the parapet, searching for the guards at their post, but there were none to be seen. “We’ll know for sure in a minute.” He shook the reins, and the gelding started forward.
They rode across the wooden drawbridge with the hollow drumming of hooves in their ears.
On reaching the far side, they passed under the pointed iron teeth of the portcullis and entered the bailey, where outbuildings and animal pens lined the inside of the curtain wall. The smell of death and decay in the air caused their mounts to mince and sidestep, with eyes rolling and nostrils distended.
Kyle reined in, as did Vinewood and Hoprig behind him. He patted the gelding’s sleek neck and spoke in a soothing tone to calm the nervous creature. He let his gaze rove around the entire courtyard. There was no stock in the pens. Neither was there a chicken scratching for bugs in the fallen hay nor a dog sprawling in the shadows. Not a living soul moved about the courtyard.
The quiet was absolute, until the creak of rusted hinges shattered the eerie silence.
The sound brought Kyle’s head around just as a middle-aged woman stepped through the doorway of the storeroom on the ground floor of the three-story keep.
She did not appear to be a servant or a charwoman, for her light blue linen gown with embroidery at the neck and cuffs was too fine. Her face was pale beneath the matching light blue cap that covered every strand of hair on her head. Her eyes were narrowed against the glare of the sun, making it difficult to discern their color. She stood near the open storeroom door with the poise of a noblewoman, her hands clasped demurely at her thick waist, as though waiting for him to introduce himself and state the reason for his presence there.
Kyle dismounted and signaled for Vinewood and Hoprig to do the same. “Mistress Ryland?” Though it was merely a guess on his part, it was evidently a good one, for the wary expression on her face relaxed into curiosity.
“Aye,” she said in a high child-like voice.
“Kyle Shaw, deputy to the sheriff of Ayrshire, at your service,” he said with a slight bow.
“Welcome to Cragston Castle,” she said.
“Is there some place where we may speak in private?” Kyle said.
The wary expression returned to her face. “What is it you wish to say?”
“When was the last time you saw Sir Fulbert?” Kyle said.
“Only a moment ago,” she said with a puzzled frown. “Why do you ask?”
Kyle cast a pointed glance at Hoprig, who, by a shrug of his shoulders, absolved himself from all blame for mistaking the dead man’s identity.
“I would like to speak to Sir Fulbert, if I may,” Kyle said.
“He is inside.” She stepped into the storeroom and beckoned for them to come with her. “This way.”
Kyle and the two English soldiers followed her through the barrels and kegs to the hewn steps that led up to the main hall on the second floor.
Sir Fulbert, whose clean-shaven face closely resembled that of the drowned man, sat alone at a long trestle table, with both hands cupped around a pewter mug. A clay pitcher of ale stood within easy reach. Crusts of bread and bits of smoked fish left over from a meal for half a dozen people littered the wooden tabletop. His gray head turned at the tramp of boots advancing toward him on the timber-plank floor. “Who are you? What do you want?” he demanded. It was obvious he had been drinking heavily, for his speech was slurred and his movements slow and deliberate. His bloodshot eyes shifted to Mistress Ryland. “Why did you bring them here?”
Kyle introduced himself to Sir Fulbert. “I asked to see you because of the body pulled from the river early this morning.”
“How does that concern me?” Sir Fulbert said, immediately defensive.
“It may be Sir Humphrey,” Kyle said.
Sir Fulbert did not even blink an eye at the news that his brother might be dead. Mistress Ryland, on the other hand, clapped both hands over her mouth to stifle the cry of anguish that came from deep in her throat.
Sir Fulbert glared at her. “Drowned, you say?” he said, focusing with difficulty on Kyle’s face. “How did it happen?”
“I’m not sure yet,” Kyle said. “When was the last time you saw him alive?”
“Early yesterday, I think,” Sir Fulbert said. He gave Mistress Ryland a fierce scowl, as though daring her to contradict him.
“When was the last time you saw him?” Kyle said to Mistress Ryland, ignoring Sir Fulbert’s silent threat.
“It is as my husband says,” she said, her eyes downcast. “He went out riding yesterday morning, and that’s the last I ever saw of him.”
“Where is your groom?” Kyle said. That was an assumption on his part, for if there were horses in the stable, there must be someone to care for them.
“Gone to Maybole for supplies,” she said. “He should be back any time now.”
“What about your son?” Kyle said.
“He is out hunting,” she said.
“When will he return?” Kyle said.
“Later today, I expect,” she said.
“And your daughter?” Kyle said. That was another assumption, but he could tell he hit a nerve from the pure hatred that blazed in Mistress Ryland’s hazel eyes as her gaze flicked to her husband.
“She is unwell just now,” she said, nearly choking with anger as she spoke.
“Perhaps I can talk with her another time, then,” Kyle said.
“Perhaps.” She turned her face away from her husband, as though she could not stand to look at him.
Kyle reached into the pouch at his side and withdrew the ring-and-pin brooch taken from the dead man’s cloak.
Mistress Ryland’s eyes widened at the sight of the brooch, which confirmed her recognition of it.
“What is the significance of the oak leaves and acorns on this?” he said to Sir Fulbert, holding up the brooch. “The pattern is repeated on Sir Humphrey’s belt.”
Sir Fulbert upended the pewter mug and swallowed its contents, as though stalling for time to think. “There are oak leaves and acorns on the Ryland family crest,” he said after a moment. He spoke with difficulty around the thickness of his tongue.
Kyle laid the brooch on the table. “Why would anyone thrust mistletoe down Sir Humphrey’s throat?” he said, watching Sir Fulbert closely.
The question had a sobering effect on Sir Fulbert. He sat up straight on the hard wooden bench. “Who did that?” he said, his eyes now bright with acute cognition.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” Kyle said, leveling a piercing gaze at him.
Sir Fulbert picked up the clay pitcher in front of him and filled his mug to the brim with ale. He brought the mug to his lips and took a long swig before setting it back on the table. “I have no idea,” he said, avoiding the pale blue eyes boring into him.
“I understand you went on the last crusade to the Holy Land,” Kyle said in an abrupt change of subject.
“I did,” Sir Fulbert said with alacrity, as though eager to move on to another topic. “I fought beside young Edward before he was crowned as King of England. The ground ran red with Christian blood as city after city fell into the hands of a barbarian by the name of Baibars. I was lucky to survive the carnage, as did a scant handful of the men under my command.” His countenance grew dark and forbidding. “Before we left the Holy Land to come home, we caught up with some of those heathen dogs who saw fit to desecrate holy ground.” His eyes glittered with malicious satisfaction. “We saw to it that every one of them got what they deserved.”
Kyle was about to take his leave of the Rylands when an attractive woman in her early twenties entered the main hall.
Large brown eyes looked out over elegant cheekbones in her oval face. Her skin was flawless, and the fawn color of her silk gown flattered her creamy complexion. She glided toward them with a light quick step, her head up and her shoulders back. Her skirts rustled across the timber-plank flooring as she approached the trestle table. Vinewood’s appreciative gaze upon her brought a slight smile to her full lips, as though she expected his admiration and was gratified to receive it.
“This is Eleanora, my daughter by marriage,” Mistress Ryland said to Kyle. “She is wife to my son, Peter.” She then related to the young woman the reason for Kyle’s visit.
On hearing the news, the coquettish flutter of Eleanora’s slender hands ceased. Her entire body went utterly still. Only her eyes moved to search Kyle’s chiseled features, taking in the white seam of a scar that ran from temple to jaw on his clean-shaven face. “Are you sure it is Sir Humphrey?” she said in a strained voice.
“I do not know him by sight,” Kyle said. “For that reason, one of you must go to the mortuary chapel at St. John’s Priory to identify his remains. If it is indeed Sir Humphrey, you must then make arrangements for his burial.”
Eleanora shook her head, causing the frilly edges of her off-white bonnet to quiver. “Not me,” she said. The air of soft femininity about her seemed to harden as her gaze settled on Sir Fulbert. “He’s your brother. It’s your duty to go.”
Sir Fulbert paid no heed to her scolding tone. Instead, he reached for his mug of ale and buried his high-bridged patrician nose in it.
Mistress Ryland wrung her hands, looking sufficiently distraught for Kyle to offer a suggestion. “Perhaps your son can undertake the task.”
“Of course,” Mistress Ryland said, clearly grateful. “It is settled, then. Peter shall call upon Prior Drumlay on the morrow.”
Kyle turned to Eleanora. “When did you last see Sir Humphrey alive?”
Her face brightened at receiving the handsome deputy’s undivided attention. She reached up to touch her cap. Her restless fingers slid down to the back of her neck before moving around to caress her chest above the swell of her breasts under her gown. “Yesterday morning, I think,” she said. “Is it important?” she added, her eyes wide.
“Perhaps,” Kyle said.
He saw through her pretense of innocence. She was lying. All of the signs pointed to it. In his experience, there were many reasons why people lied, the foremost being fear or shame or guilt. He never even mentioned to the Rylands that Sir Humphrey had been murdered, except by innuendo when he asked Sir Fulbert about the mistletoe. Since she had not been present at that time, there was no reason for her to evade the truth—unless of course she was the one who killed Sir Humphrey, or if she did not do it herself, perhaps she knew who did. He would give her time to relax her guard before he questioned her about it again.
There was one more thing he wanted to know before he left.
“Mistress Ryland,” he said, directing the question to the only person present who would give him an honest answer. “Were you aware that Sir Humphrey wore a hair shirt under his clothing?”
Before she could respond, Sir Fulbert flung up his head. “I knew he would do something like that,” he said, pounding his fist on the table. “What a pathetic wretch!”
Mistress Ryland ignored the outburst. “If he did, I never saw it.”
Kyle knew he would get nothing more from the Rylands, so he took his leave. He strode from the main hall with Vinewood and Hoprig a step behind him. They descended the hewn stairs to the storeroom and went out into the sunlit bailey beyond.
“Those Rylands are a kettle of cold fish,” Hoprig said, with his usual flair of putting a finger on the pulse of the matter. He drew in a deep breath of malodorous air. “As bad as it smells, I’d rather be out here, than in there with them.”
“I think Mistress Eleanora is rather fetching,” Vinewood said with a crooked grin.
“She certainly knows more than she’s letting on,” Kyle said.
The grin faded from Vinewood’s face. “What makes you say that?”
“She couldn’t keep her hands still,” Kyle said. “Anybody that nervous surely must have something to hide.”
“Now that you mention it,” Vinewood said, “she did look a bit edgy.”
They were about to mount their horses when Kyle noticed a wagon that had not been in the courtyard earlier. It was parked near a stone-built kitchen with a blackened chimney jutting up from its tiled roof.
A young man in tan leggings under a belted white shirt stepped through the open doorway of the kitchen. He went to the wagon and took a basket full of root vegetables and collard greens from among the supplies piled on the wooden bed.
Kyle walked over to the wagon and introduced himself. “Are you the groom here?”
“Aye,” the young man said. “Ye can call me Arnald.” He was about twenty-five years old, with a lean build that made him look taller than his middle height. His sharp features were comely, and his dark blue eyes stood out against his ruddy complexion. His long face was shaved clean, except for a thin moustache on his upper lip. The straight brown hair that reached his shoulders glinted with reddish highlights in the noonday sun. His calm manner and low voice were well suited for the job of handling spirited horses. Because of his coloring and the clothes he wore, he could pass for an Englishman; that is, until he opened his mouth, for he spoke with the soft burr of a lowlander.
Kyle removed a sack of flour from the back of the wagon and heaved it onto his shoulder. “Where do you want this?”
“Just put it on the table in here,” Arnald said. He led the way into the kitchen and set the basket of vegetables on the stone floor beside the hearth.
Kyle deposited the heavy sack on the wooden table with a grunt. “What is the cause of the stench in the bailey?”
“It’s from dead stock,” Arnald said, heading back out to the wagon. “The pigs and cows just kept keeling over during the past few weeks until there wasn’t a single one left alive.”
Kyle picked up one of the two slatted cages with half a dozen squawking chickens inside. The chickens quieted down when he started to walk. “What killed them?”
“Rumor has it that the former occupants of this castle placed a curse upon it,” Arnald said, lifting the other slatted cage with both hands.
“Do you believe that?” Kyle said.
“I don’t,” Arnald said with a shake of his head. “The Southrons assigned here to serve under Sir Fulbert must have done, though, because every one of them put in for a transfer back to the garrison.”
“What do you think killed those animals?”
Kyle carried the chicken cage into the kitchen and set it on the floor against the wall. “How so?”
Arnald set his cage next to the other one. “I fed the pigs and the cows with feed from the sacks newly purchased from the marketplace at Ayr. The horses ate oats from the sacks taken from our storeroom. Sir Peter wanted them used up before he bought any more. Since none of the horses died, I concluded that the new feed must have been tainted.”
“Could it have been poisoned?” Kyle said.
A frown creased Arnald’s smooth forehead. “That would mean someone did it on purpose.”
“Do the Rylands have any enemies that you know of?” Kyle said.
“Anyone who ever met them, I imagine,” Arnald said. “They’re a disagreeable lot, even to other Southrons.”
“I’d like to get a sample of that tainted feed,” Kyle said.
“There’s still some on the ground over there,” Arnald said. He started across the courtyard toward the empty animal pens. “I haven’t had a chance to clean it up yet. I did burn the carcasses, though, just to get rid of them.”
“Did Sir Humphrey go out early yesterday morning?” Kyle said, falling in step beside the young man.
“He did,” Arnald said.
“Did you saddle his horse?”
“Aye, like I do most days.”
“Where does he usually go?”
“Cragston Forest,” Arnald said. “He likes to go hawking there. It is abundant with small game, so he says.” His eyebrows drew together over his dark blue eyes. “I often wondered why he bothered to take the hawk with him at all.”
“Why is that?”
“Because he never brought any game back with him.”
“Maybe he went there for some other reason,” Kyle said. He glanced over at the young man to watch his reaction. “To meet a woman, perhaps.”
The pucker on Arnald’s brow deepened. “Whatever Sir Humphrey does is no concern of mine,” he said. “That goes for the other Rylands, too.”
“I admire your loyalty,” Kyle said. “However, Sir Humphrey’s body was found early this morning—”
“He’s dead?” Arnald cried, interrupting him.
“Aye,” Kyle said. “We pulled him out of the River Ayr just after sunrise.”
“I don’t believe it,” Arnald said.
“It’s true,” Kyle said.
“Sir Humphrey hated the water,” Arnald said. “He couldn’t swim, ye see.”
“Sir Peter will make a proper identification on the morrow,” Kyle said. “By the way, do you know why Sir Humphrey wore a hair shirt under his clothing?”
“I’m only a groom,” Arnald said, “not a manservant.” He opened the gate of the nearest pen and went inside. “Besides, ye don’t even know that it is Sir Humphrey,” he said, squatting to scoop up a handful of dry feed.
Kyle removed a scrap of cloth from the pouch at his side and held it out to receive the feed. He folded the cloth and tucked it into his pouch. “His resemblance to Sir Fulbert is remarkable enough to convince me that they are kinsmen.”
Arnald dusted his hands on his leggings and leaned his forearms on the top rail that encircled the pen. “I can’t take it in that he’s truly dead.”
“Didn’t you suspect something was amiss when he failed to return last evening?” Kyle said.
Arnald shook his head. “It was not unusual for him to spend the odd night away now and again.”
Kyle looked over at the wagon parked outside the kitchen. “Who prepares the food here?”
“My mam comes in six days a week to cook and wash up,” Arnald said. “She says God rested on the seventh day, and so must she. The Rylands are left to fend for themselves on Sundays.” He chuckled, as though at some private joke. “She’ll be along shortly to prepare dinner.”
“What’s so funny?” Kyle said.
“As contrary as the Rylands are,” Arnald said, “they’re afraid to say a wrong word to Mam for fear she’ll leave, never to return. They would then have to eat Mistress Marjorie’s cooking.”
“Who is Mistress Marjorie?” Kyle said.
“Sir Fulbert’s daughter.”
“Ah,” Kyle said. “I have not yet had the pleasure of making her acquaintance.”
Arnald’s comely face darkened into a scowl. “She’s unable to receive anyone at the moment.”
“Is she ill?” Kyle said with concern.
Just then, the clash of hooves on the cobbled stones of the gateway echoed in the bailey. A white horse with a plaited mane entered the courtyard at a trot and clattered to a halt. A heavy-set man in a maroon velvet cotte swung down from the ornate saddle on its back.
“It is Sir Peter,” Arnald said, his face still set in a scowl. “I must attend to his horse.” He hastened from the animal pen toward the waiting man.
Kyle followed the groom across the courtyard at a more sedate pace.
Sir Peter appeared to be a year or two short of thirty. His full cheeks were brick red, as though burned from the wind. His clean-shaven face bore the stamp of the Rylands, with its high-bridged, arrogant nose and stubborn chin. His eyes were hazel, like his mother’s, and his hair was light brown. A long white feather protruded from the maroon cap perched at a jaunty angle on his head.
He handed the reins to Arnald. “Who is that?” he said, his gaze on Kyle.
“That is the sheriff’s deputy,” Arnald said. “He’s come about Sir Humphrey.”
“What about him?” Sir Peter said.
“He’s dead,” Arnald said.
Sir Peter’s only reaction to the news was the stiffening of his body.
The movement was slight, but Kyle caught it as he drew near.
“What’s this about my uncle?” Sir Peter said in a brusque tone, as though speaking to a servant. He professed interest, yet he seemed otherwise unaffected by the loss of a family member.
Kyle recounted what he knew thus far, short of mentioning murder and the sprig of mistletoe. “Identity must be confirmed before the body can be released for burial.”
“I suppose I must handle that,” Sir Peter said in a petulant tone. “Just as I am expected to handle everything else around here.”
“Your mother hoped you would see to it on the morrow,” Kyle said.
“I’ll wager she did,” Sir Peter said. He turned away with a derisive snort and started toward the storeroom door on the ground floor of the keep.
Arnald set out for the stable set against the curtain wall with the white horse in tow.
“Just one more thing before I go,” Kyle said.
Arnald paused to look over his shoulder, uncertain whether the deputy was addressing him or the scion of Cragston Castle.
Sir Peter kept walking, not even bothering to slow down.
“Do you know why anyone would shove a sprig of mistletoe down Sir Humphrey’s throat?” Kyle said in a voice loud enough to ensure that both men heard every word.
The uncertainty on Arnald’s comely face gave way to bewilderment.
Sir Peter stopped abruptly. He turned slowly, his wind-burned cheeks now blanched white. The Adam’s apple in his throat bobbed as he swallowed involuntarily. “Are you sure it was mistletoe?” he said, licking his lips.