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Death of a Squire

Maureen Ash

One

Lincolnshire

Late Autumn 1200 A.D.

The trees in the forest were nearly denuded of leaves. Those that remained were brown and curled, rattling with dry whispers when the wind blew. On the forest floor bracken still struggled with life, but dark and musty, full of dead insects and the remains of spiders’ webs. It was quiet, only the distant irritating call of a lone crow marring the silence. The pale sun pushed tentative fingers through the remaining foliage, glistening on the dew that lay thick upon the ground.

High in the branches of an oak tree a man crouched. Dressed all in brown, and with a dark beard covering most of his face, he could hardly be seen as he kept close to the trunk of the tree. Slung from his waist was a quiver of arrows and he held his bow loosely in his left hand, ready for use when his prey appeared. Below him, secreted in the thickness of the undergrowth, were two of his comrades, one on each side of a trail marked with the delicate hoofprints of deer and liberally scattered with droppings. They, too, had arrows and bows at the ready.

The trio had been in their places nearly two hours, since before dawn, for the track was one used by deer to water at a small stream some few hundred yards distant. Their muscles were cramped, and eyes and ears sore from straining to catch some sign of the quarry they were after, but the desperate hunger in their bellies kept them in place.

Finally a movement could be heard, just a gentle thud as a hoof touched bare earth. The deer was a large one and male-perhaps a soar, in his fourth year. Sensing possible danger, the stag paused in mid-stride and lifted a quivering nose to investigate the air for any scent that would tell of an enemy nearby. As he did so, his dappled shape glinted amongst the trunks of the trees, and his antlers could be seen. They were a broken mass of spikes, torn during battle in the recent rutting season. When he finally took a hesitant step forward, there was a meaty ripple of the flesh on his haunches that brought a gush of saliva into the mouths of the waiting men.

Slowly, and with the greatest of care and held breath, the men nocked arrows to their bows. Though they made hardly a sound, the deer became aware of their presence and started to bolt. With a great leap he sprang forward, but his alarm had been triggered a split second too late. The hunter in the tree loosed an arrow that sped like a popping flame true to its mark and buried itself deep in the side of the stag’s neck. The deer faltered but kept to its feet, hooves scrabbling on the ground as it tried to gain purchase to run. Two more arrows flew through the air, one taking the stag in the side, the other lodging in the vulnerable flesh of its underbelly as it crashed to the ground, throwing up a cloud of leaves and rotting vegetation as the heavy body began its death spasms.

“Heigh-ho, we’ve got him!” The yells of the two jubilant hunters on the ground echoed through the quiet wood before being hastily hushed by the man in the tree as he clambered down.

“Quiet, you fools. Do you want every forester from here to Lincoln to know we have made a kill? With the noise you’re making even the sheriff in his keep will be able to hear you.”

Both of his companions immediately fell silent and when one of them spoke, it was in low tones. “Aye, you’re right, Fulcher. Sorry. But it is a rare beast, is it not? And will make good feasting for many a meal. Talli and I just got carried away, that’s all. It won’t happen again.”

“See that it doesn’t, Berdo. There might still be some villagers around collecting hazelnuts or cutting bracken. At best they’ll want a share of meat; at worst they’ll raise an alarm. Quick now, let’s get done and away before we’re seen.”

The men set to work, slicing meat from the carcass without regard for the niceties of their butchering and stowing the bloody chunks in rough sacks they had brought rolled up and thrust in their belts. When they had hacked off as much as they could carry, they prepared to depart, wiping their knives by thrusting them point first into the earth. Talli, still exuberant with the excitement of their good fortune, pushed aside from the track to relieve his bladder, while Fulcher and Berdo did their best to cover the remains of the kill with handfuls of dead leaves. As they finished, Fulcher quietly called to Talli to hurry.

“You can piss as much as you need once we’re away from here,” he remonstrated. “It won’t be long before Camville’s forester is on his round.”

There was no answer from Talli and both of his comrades looked at him questioningly when he reappeared on the track, white-faced and silent.

Fulcher was the first to react. “What is it, Talli? Are we discovered?” He looked around fearfully, peering down the path the deer had taken, seeking any movement that would indicate the dreaded presence of authority, but there was only stillness and again the raucous call of the crow, this time answered by another of its kind.

Talli came slowly forward. “No, there’s no one about. No one living, that is.” He motioned with his arm towards the ceiling of tree limbs above them. “Look up, over there.”

His companions gazed skyward, in the direction that he was pointing. “Sweet Jesu,” murmured Fulcher. Berdo gripped Talli hard by the arm as he, too, saw what his friend had found.

“I was looking to see what that crow was fussing about,” Talli explained. “Thought it might be they had seen someone we couldn’t. So I looked up… God’s Blood, I wish I hadn’t.”

The trio moved to where Talli had gone to relieve himself, still with upturned faces, their eyes rooted to a spot on the limb of a huge oak tree. There, motionless among the almost bare branches, hung a body, secured to the tree by a rope around the neck. Another rope was tied tightly around the wrists, so that the hands hung together at the corpse’s waist. The face was mottled, tongue extended, eyes popping almost from their sockets. On a nearby tree, the two crows were now perched in silence, watching the men with bright black eyes. In the sky above them more crows were making an appearance, gliding on silent wings in ever-decreasing circles before landing beside their brethren, until the upper branches of the tree were filled with their dark forbidding shapes.

“That’s a fine meal those scavengers will have today,” murmured Talli.

“And fine in more ways than one,” observed Fulcher. “Look at those clothes. Good velvet tunic and woollen hose. Those don’t belong to the likes of us. He’s from a lord’s household, maybe even a lord himself. When he’s found, there’ll be a hue and cry all over Lincoln.”

With long steps he returned to where the sacks of meat waited, the blood already seeping through the rough cloth and forming pools on the ground. “Let’s be away from here, lads. This is nowt to do with us and we best try and keep it that way.”

Berdo remained where he was, then said slowly, “If I stood on your shoulders, Fulcher, we could cut him down. His clothes would make fine pickings, and I think I see a dagger in his belt. We could use that.”

“No,” said Fulcher vehemently. “Like I said, we’d best be away from here. If we’re caught in the act of robbing him, we’ll be blamed for his death as well. I want no part of this.”

“If they catch us, we’ll be hanged for the deer anyway. A man can only die once,” Berdo replied.

“Then you do it on your own, Berdo, without my connivance. If Talli is of a mind to help you with the plunder, then so be it. But I will not.”

At the reluctant look on Talli’s face, Berdo gave in and they joined Fulcher in hefting the sacks of meat onto their shoulders.

“He’s nowt but a lad,” said Talli. “Looks to be no more than fifteen or sixteen. And from the way he’s been trussed, he didn’t string himself up there. Why would anyone bring a youngster like that out here and hang him?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Fulcher replied. “I’m going to forget I ever saw him and if you two have any sense in your addled pates you’ll do the same.”

Laden with their booty, the three men made haste down the track towards the stream that had been the destination of the deer they had killed. In its water the poachers would place their steps until they were well away from the scene of their crime so that any dogs used to track them would lose their telltale scent and the smell of the deer’s blood. Above them a slight breeze rattled the dry branches of the oak and the body swayed slightly, then

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