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The Alehouse Murders

Maureen Ash

One

Lincoln

Summer 1200 A.D.

Heat hung like a sodden blanket over Lincoln town and the surrounding countryside. The air was heavy, almost too thick to breathe, wrapping itself around mouth and nostrils like a linen shroud. It made the atmosphere seem ominous; a feeling enhanced by the distant sound of thunder as it rolled and crackled, but did not give the gift of rain.

On the banks of a stream about two miles from the walls of Lincoln, a hawking party was engaged in the hunt. From behind the shelter of a stand of trees the sheriff of Lincoln, Gerard Camville, and his wife, along with their companions, watched as a falcon circled like a small speck high in the ceiling of the sky. Directly below the bird, hidden in the reeds of the river bank, lay the sheriff’s falconer, directing her movements. At his signal the kennel master released his hounds and they surged forward, barking and yapping at the ducks bobbing unsuspectingly on the gently rippling surface of the stream. In alarm, the waterfowl took to the air and, as they rose up like a whirring cloud, the peregrine stooped, plummeting like a ragged stone to strike on a fat mallard that had been a little slower than the rest. The talons and notched beak of the falcon quickly extinguished the life from its prey.

The falconer swung his lure in a wide circle above his head, attracting the young peregrin and tempting her from her kill. Soon she was hooded and resting securely on her trainer’s wrist, the tidbit he fed her disappearing quickly down her sharp curved beak, while servants ran to secure the mallard in a rough cloth sack. The bird skittered and bobbed on the falconer’s wrist, pulling against the thongs that bound her. He calmed her by dribbling water from his mouth over the feathers on her back.

“Good man. Well done.” The thickly muscled figure of the sheriff, Gerard Camville, left the cover of the trees. He walked lightly for so large a man, but there was no doubting the aggressiveness of his personality. It was there in the forward thrust of his jaw and in the restless darting eyes. “You have trained her well, Eubold,” he said to the falconer. “I was right to buy her. These birds from the cliffs of Wales are far superior to those of Norway. I remember King Henry losing a fine gyrfalcon in combat to one of this strain some fifteen years ago. We will get some good sport from her.”

“And some tender morsels for the table as well, I trust.” Nicolaa de la Haye came to stand beside the sheriff. They were an oddly assorted pair, the sheriff’s powerful figure seeming to diminish that of the small plump woman who was his wife. But only the most unobservant would not have noticed that they were more than equally matched in temperament. Camville’s fractiousness washed over the calmness of his wife’s demeanour with the futility of a winter storm beating upon a rock. Both in their midforties, they had been married for more than twenty years, and although time had not softened the contrast in their personalities, it had taught them both to tolerate the differences.

The rest of the hawking party came to where they stood. It was a small group, with only a handful of the castle’s household knights and a few servants to carry the food and wine for their midmorning meal.

“We will go downstream,” Camville announced, “towards the marsh. Perhaps we will find some heron on which to test this beauty.” He reached over and took the bird from the falconer, securing her to his own gauntleted wrist and setting the bells on her jesses tinkling.

“Do you not think, Gerard, that it would be best to keep her to smaller prey at first?” Nicolaa asked her husband. On her own gloved wrist perched a merlin, the small falcon deemed suitable for a woman’s use. It was one of her favourites, and sat quietly, the rough spotted feathers on its breast ruffling lightly in the breeze. “Your bird is young yet; she will lose heart if you set her too hard a task before she is ready.”

Gerard turned to debate the point when he noticed a thin trail of dust rising above the trees that lay between the stream where they stood and the stone walls of Lincoln. Soon the muffled sound of hoof beats, moving at speed on the hard-packed dirt of the forest track, reached them and, moments later, a horse and rider broke through the cover of the trees into the clearing at the side of the stream. It was a man-at-arms from the castle garrison; the twelve pointed red star of the Haye family showing brightly on the breast of his tunic. Sliding to a stop in front of Gerard and Nicolaa he dismounted, leaving his horse standing foam-flecked and with heaving sides as he went down on one knee before the sheriff and his wife.

“Christ’s Blood,” Camville swore, “what is it now? Can we not have a morning’s sport without interruption?”

“My lord, my lady,” the soldier panted, “Ernulf has sent me.” The man-at-arms was young, with a pasty face liberally scarred with boils. Sweat ran in rivulets from the lank brown hair that stuck out from beneath his leather cap, caused not only by the heat and the exertions of his ride, but also nervousness at being the center of his master and mistress’ attention. He hoped to draw the sheriff’s well known irascibility away from himself by making it clear that it was the captain of the castle guard, not he, that was the cause of the intrusion.

Camville swore again, but Nicolaa laid her hand on her husband’s arm. “Ernulf would not spoil your pleasure on a whim, Gerard. It must be important.”

Although Gerard was sheriff it was Nicolaa, through the inheritance of her father, who was castellan of the castle and responsible to the king for its security. Ernulf had been in her father’s service since she had been a child. His loyalty to her was unquestionable, as was his devotion to her well-being. If he had thought there was reason to disturb her, it would not be for naught. “What is the message from Ernulf?” she asked of the young soldier.

The lad took a great gulp of air, thankful for Lady Nicolaa’s calm authority, and now with relish he repeated the words he had been told to say. “There has been murder done in Lincoln town, my lady. Four people dead in an alehouse off Danesgate. All stabbed to death. Sir Bascot and Ernulf have gone to the place and to see the priest of St. Andrew’s. It was the priest who reported the crime.” The young man-at-arm’s face grew even redder with the excitement of his tale. The boils looked ready to burst.

“May God’s angels weep,” Camville exploded. “As if this hell-sent weather wasn’t enough, we now have a murderer loose in Lincoln. And the fair about to begin. Someone’s guts shall spill for this.”

Although the news had shaken Nicolaa as well, she reacted with more restraint than her husband. “If these unfortunates were found in an alehouse, Gerard, they may only be drunken sots who have killed each other over a game of dice, or a woman. It is most likely something of nothing.”

Camville was not much mollified, but he did grunt in assent to her reasoning, and he gave her no argument when she suggested that she return to the castle immediately to find out what was the truth of the matter. “It may be some hours before all the details are known, Gerard. I will go now and you can return at your leisure. There is no need for both of us to lose the morning’s sport.”

At the sheriff’s nod of agreement Nicolaa spoke to the messenger. “Return to Lincoln. Find Ernulf and tell him I am returning directly. Tell him also to be discreet and that he and Sir Bascot are to report to me with all haste, before this news is bruited abroad and alarms the townspeople and the visitors who have come for the fair. I shall await them in my private chamber.”

As the man-at-arms put his heels to his flagging mount and sped away, Nicolaa herself moved to depart, motioning for one of the servants to accompany her. “God grant these deaths were caused by nothing more than an alehouse brawl, Gerard. But if they were not, we shall need some good meat for the table to fortify ourselves for any trouble that may come. Perhaps I was wrong about your new falcon. It may be time to try her on a larger quarry.”

With a smile she disappeared down the track, the servant following behind. It was an old game between her and her husband. She bought his complaisance by pandering to his taste for the hunt and his disinclination to attend to the details of running the shrievalty and castle. In return she retained the power in her own hands, managing the garrison and Haye lands as her father had done before her. It suited them both.

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