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Peter Tremayne

Smoke in the Wind

God arises and his enemies are scattered; those who hate him flee before him, driven away like smoke in the wind. .

Psalm 68

Chapter One

The girl looked as if she were merely resting among the bracken, lying with one arm thrown carelessly behind her head, the other extended at her side. Her pale, attractive features seemed relaxed; the eyes, with their dark lashes, were closed; the lips were partially opened showing fine, white teeth. Her dark hair formed a sharp contrast to the pallid texture of the skin.

It was only by the thin line of blood, which had trickled from the corner of her mouth before congealing, and the fact that her facial skin seemed discoloured, mottled with red fading into blue, that one could see she was not resting naturally. From that, together with her torn, bloodstained, dirty clothing, a discerning observer might realise that something was clearly wrong.

The youth stood before the body, gazing down at it without expression. He was thin, wiry, with ginger hair and a freckled face, but carrying a tan which seemed to indicate that he was used to being outside in most weathers. His lips were too red and full, making his features slightly ugly by the imbalance. His pale eyes were fixed on the body of the girl. He was dressed in a sleeveless sheepskin jacket, fastened by a leather belt. Thick homespun trousers and leather leggings gave him the appearance of a shepherd.

A deep, long sigh came from his parted lips; a soft whistling sound.

‘Ah, Mair, why? Why, Mair?’

The words came like a curious sob yet his expression did not alter.

He stayed there with fixed gaze for a few more moments until the sound of shouting came to his ears. He raised his head sharply, tilting it slightly to one side in a listening attitude, and his features changed. A wild, hunted expression came on his face. People were moving in his direction. Their cries came clearly to his ears, moving closer and closer through the surrounding trees. He could hear them beating through the gorse and bracken.

The youth glanced once more at the body of the girl and then turned quickly away from the approaching sounds.

He had gone barely ten or twenty metres when a blow across the shoulders felled him to the ground. The momentum of the blow caused him to pitch forward. He dropped on his hands and knees, gasping for breath.

A burly man had emerged from concealment behind a tree, still holding the thick wood cudgel in his hand. He was dark, thickset and full-bearded. He stood, feet apart, above the youth, the cudgel in his hands, ready and threatening.

‘On your feet, Idwal,’ the man growled. ‘Or I shall strike you while you are still on your knees.’

The boy looked up, still smarting from the pain of the blow. ‘What do you want with me, lord Gwnda?’ he wailed. ‘I have done you no harm.’

The dark-haired man frowned angrily. ‘Don’t play games with me, boy!’

He gestured back along the path, towards the body of the girl. As he did so a group of men came bursting through the trees onto the forest path behind them. Some of them saw the body of the girl and howls of rage erupted from them.

‘Here!’ yelled the dark-haired man, his eyes not leaving the youth, his cudgel still ready. ‘Here, boys! I have him. I have the murderer.’

The newcomers, voices raised with fresh anger and violence, came running towards the kneeling youth who now started to sob as he saw his death in their expressions.

‘I swear, by the Holy Virgin I swear I did not-’

A sharp kick from one of the leading men landed on the side of the boy’s head. It sent him sprawling and, mercifully, into unconsciousness because several others among the new arrivals started to kick viciously at his body.

‘Enough!’ shouted the dark-haired man called Gwnda. ‘I know you are full of grief and anger, but this must be done according to the law. We will take him back to the township and send for the barnwr.’

‘What need have we of a judge, Gwnda?’ cried one of the men. ‘Don’t we have the evidence of our own eyes? Didn’t I see Idwal and poor Mair with voices raised in fierce argument only a short time ago? There was violence in Idwal, if ever I saw it.’

The black-bearded man shook his head. ‘It shall be done according to law, Iestyn. We will send for the barnwr, a learned judge from the abbey of Dewi Sant.’

The monk was young and walked with that confident, rapid stride of youth along the pathway through the encompassing forest. He wore his winter cloak wrapped tight against the early morning chill and his thick black- thorn staff was carried not so much as an aid to walking but to be turned, at a moment’s notice, into a weapon of defence. The woods of Ffynnon Druidion, the Druid’s well, were notorious for the highway thieves who lurked within their gloomy recesses.

Brother Cyngar was not really worried, merely cautious in spite of his confident gait. Early dawn on this bright autumnal day was, he felt, a time when all self-respecting thieves would still be sleeping off the excessive alcohol of the previous evening. Surely no thief would be abroad and looking for victims at such an hour? Not even the infamous Clydog Cacynen who haunted the woods; Clydog the Wasp, he was called, for he stung when least expected. A notorious outlaw. It was fear of meeting Clydog Cacynen that caused Brother Cyngar to choose this hour to make his way through the wood, having spent the previous night at a woodsman’s cottage by the old standing stone.

There was frost lying like a white carpet across the woodland. Behind the soft white clouds, a weak winter’s sun was obviously trying to extend its rays. The woodland seemed colourless. The leaves had fallen early for there had been several cold spells in spite of its not being late in the season. Only here and there were clumps of evergreens such as the dark holly trees with the females carrying their bright red berries. There were also some common alders with their brown, woody cones which had, only a short time before, been ripened catkins, and a few silver birch. But everything was dominated by the tall, bare and gaunt sessile oaks.

Now and again, along the track that he was following, Brother Cyngar espied crampball clinging to fallen trunks of ash; curious black and inedible fungi which he had once heard prevented night cramp if placed in one’s bed before sleeping. Cyngar had the cynicism of youth and smiled at the thought of such a thing.

The woods were stirring with life now. He saw a common shrew, a tiny brown creature, race out of a bush in front of him, skid to a halt and sniff. Its poor eyesight was made up for by its keen sense of smell. It caught his scent at once, gave a squeak, and then disappeared within a split second.

As it did so, high above came the regretful call of a circling red kite who must have spotted the tiny, elusive creature even through the canopy of bare branches and, had it not been for Brother Cyngar’s appearance, might have taken it as its breakfast.

Only once did Brother Cyngar start and raise his stick defensively at a nearby ominous rustling. He relaxed almost immediately as he caught sight of the orange-brown fur coat with white spots and broad blade antlers that denoted a solitary fallow deer which turned and bounded away through the undergrowth to safety.

Finally, Brother Cyngar could see, along the path ahead of him, the trees gradually giving way to an open

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