Michael Jecks



Chapter One

It was not until much later, when winter had relaxed its grip and spring had touched the land with the fresh, yellow-green shades of renewal, that the feelings of horror and revulsion began to fade.

The knight knew full well that they were not gone entirely but merely superseded for a time by the pragmatic concerns of the villagers. The beginning of a new year forced the killings out of people’s minds. Everyone was too busy for contemplation, preparing the fields and making use of the increasing daylight. But the murders had been committed late in the winter, and the long, cold evenings had given time for the storytellers to reflect and embellish. With their faces lighted by the angry red glow at the fireside, the families thrilled to hear about them time and again.

He could not grudge the people their fascination with the murders – it was only natural in such a quiet, rural shire. Devon was not the same as other parts of the kingdom, where people lived in continual anxiety. On the northern marches men feared more attacks from the Scottish raiders, while at the coast people were terrified of raids by the French pirates. Here the only concern was the possibility of a third failed harvest.

No, it was not surprising that the people looked to a story like that of the murdered witch to enliven their evenings, not surprising that every man had his own opinion of the truth behind the killings, or that some now lived in fear of her ghost in case she sought revenge on the village where she had been killed.

Thinking back now, he was not sure when it all began. It was surely not the day when Tanner called, the Wednesday morning when he first saw the body with his friend the bailiff. It was before, maybe on the Saturday, when he was out hunting and saw the women for the first time. The morning he spent falconing with the rector of Crediton.

“It’s bitter, isn’t it,” said Peter Clifford again.

Without looking at him, Baldwin grinned. His concentration was focused on the slender figure clutching at his gloved fist, admiring her slate-coloured back and black-barred white chest. She sat like a high-born Syrian woman, he thought. Confident, strong and elegant, not thick and heavy like a peasant, but slim and quick. Even as he gazed at her, the head under the hood turned to face him as if hearing his thoughts, the yellow, wickedly hooked beak still and controlled. It was not threatening, but she was asserting her independence, knowing she could take her freedom when she wished: she was no dog, no devoted servant – and like all falconers, he knew it.

The priest’s words broke in on his meditation and, giving a wry smile, he turned back to the rector of the church at Crediton, the corners of his mouth lifting under the narrow black moustache. “Sorry, Peter. Are you cold?” he asked mildly.

“Cold?” Peter Clifford’s face appeared almost blue in the chill of the early morning as he squinted at his companion. “How could I feel cold in this glorious weather? I may not be a knight, I may be used to sitting in a warm hall with a fire blazing at this time of year, I may be thin and older than you, I may be sorely in need of a pint of mulled beer, but that does not mean I feel the bitterness of this wind that cuts through my tunic like a battleaxe through butter.”

Baldwin laughed and looked around at the land. They had left the forests behind and now were on open, bleak moorland. The weak winter sunshine had not yet cleared the damp mists from the ground, and their horses’ hooves seemed almost to be wading in the thick dew underfoot. Bracken and heather covered the hill and shimmered under the greyness.

They had left early, almost as dawn broke, to get here. Baldwin had rescued the peregrine as a young and vicious juvenile in the previous year and Peter had not yet witnessed the bird hunting, so the knight had eagerly agreed to bring her and show off her skill. For him it was a pure delight to watch the creature climb, only to float, high and silent, almost as if she was as light as a piece of wood ash.

This was ideal land for falcons, up here on the moor, away from the woods. Shorter in the wing, hawks were better at chasing their prey and were used by their astringers to hunt among trees or other cramped areas. The falconer used his long-winged birds on open land where they could rise quickly, soaring up to their pitch and staying there, touring above their targets until they stooped down like a falling arrow, rarely missing their mark.

Shrugging himself deeper under his cloak, Peter Clifford grimaced to himself as they rode along. Last night he had thought it would be pleasant to go hunting, after their meal and with plenty of Sir Baldwin’s good Bordeaux wine inside him, heated by the great fire while they chatted of the latest Scottish attacks to the north. Then he had envisioned a warm day, the sky a perfect blue, the hawk swooping on to her targets… He glowered. Now he felt only cold: cold, damp and miserable. There was a fine sheen of silvery moisture all over his cloak and tunic, the wind cut through to his bones, and his face felt as though he was wearing a mask of ice. It was not as he had imagined.

His feelings of chilly discomfort were emphasised by the relative calmness of the man beside him. Baldwin sat as straight and alert as the bird on his fist, swaying and rocking with the slow walk of his horse. He was a strange man, the rector thought, this quiet, educated and self-possessed knight. Very unlike the normal warriors Peter Clifford met passing through Crediton. In build he was much the same, of course. Tall and strong, with the broad chest and shoulders of a fighter, Sir Baldwin Furnshill was the very image of the Norman knight, even down to the knife scar from temple to jaw that shone with a vivid heat in the cold, and he carried himself with a haughtiness to match his position. Only the black, neatly trimmed beard that covered the line of his jaw seemed incongruous in these days when men went clean-shaven.

With the hood of the knight’s cloak lying on his back and the dark eyes roving constantly over the land, Peter could imagine him studying a battlefield, searching out the best points for an ambush, the line in the ground for the cavalry charge, the places to site the archers. His expression was curiously intense, as always, as if the knight had seen and done so much that his spirit could never be completely at ease.

But for all that the rector knew him to be a loyal friend and, more important, an honest representative of the law. Sometimes he looked as though he could only hold his temper at bay with difficulty while dealing with the local folk, but he still managed to hold it in check – unlike others the priest had known. Even the knight’s predecessor, his brother Sir Reynaid Fumshill, had been known to beat his men on occasion, though he was considered generally to be a fair man. In comparison, Baldwin appeared to be almost immune to anger.

There was a restlessness about him, though. It was there in his eyes and in the occasional sharpness of his tongue, as if every now and again the slow deliberations of his villeins became intolerably frustrating. Not like Simon Puttock, Peter thought. Simon never allowed his impatience to show. But Simon had gone to Lydford to be the castle’s bailiff. At the thought, a vague memory stirred, and his brow creased. “Baldwin? Last night… Did you say Simon would be here soon?”

The question made the knight turn and raise a quizzical eyebrow. “Yes, in a couple of days – maybe three: Monday or Tuesday. He’s been to Exeter, visiting the sheriff and the bishop.”

“Good. I would be grateful if you could let me know when he arrives. It’s been a long time since I last saw him.”

The eyebrow lifted a little farther in sardonic amusement before Baldwin gave a short laugh. “Peter, you asked me that last night! I said I would send a messenger to you as soon as he arrived. Do you expect me to forget so quickly?”

Smiling, the knight studied the ground ahead, searching for prey. He had not realised how drunk Peter had been the previous night. As for him, he rarely consumed much alcohol. It was too ingrained in his nature now, even if he had turned his back on the religious life of a monk. Glancing back, he saw his quiet, restless servant Edgar close behind. Peter had once said that he appeared to be so close to Baldwin that a shadow could not squeeze

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