Michael Jecks

Crediton Killings


When he halted his wagon, he grunted with the effort of clambering down from his perch, then winced as his sleeve caught on a splinter and the cloth ripped. The short, chubby man stood by his horse inspecting the tear disconsolately. That, for his wife, would be the last straw, he thought.

Sensing her master’s wandering attention, the horse dropped her head and began to crop the grass. The man glared at her; the sound of stems being ripped drowned out the faint musical tinkle at the extreme edge of his hearing. He slapped the horse, but she ignored him, used to his clouts and curses.

He was not overly bothered. On the busy road from Exeter to Crediton there were all manner of travellers; this jingling sound probably heralded another fishmonger, or maybe a party of merchants. Shrugging, he flattened a horsefly that had settled on his forearm, then stood scratching idly at a flea bite on his neck, hands and nails stained orange-red from the blood, while he squinted back along the road.

Other sounds distracted him too: the chattering of the birds in the trees, the chuckling and gurgling of the stream, and the rustling of the leaves overhead as the breeze gently teased the branches. He turned his eyes skyward, and wished that the draft would reach down and cool him. Even under the trees, the heat of the August sun was stifling.

Kneeling by the stream, he scooped water over his head, rubbing it into his face, puffing and blowing with the sharp coolness. He came upright slowly, shaking his head, a stout man in his early thirties, round-faced and heavy- jowled, with a thin covering of sandy hair encircling his balding head. His belly demonstrated all too eloquently how fond he was of food and drink. He had an air of robust good humor, and was always ready with a smile and a joke for his customers; few left his shop near the shambles without grins on their faces. His business was still young, and he was keen to make sure that all who visited him wanted to return.

Remembering why he had stopped in the first place, he lifted his tunic and turned away from the roadside, morosely contemplating the rippling stream before him while he gratefully emptied his bladder. He should never, he thought, have accepted all that ale from the farmer…

He straightened his hose reflectively. His wife would be bound to be irritable after waiting so long. He had promised to be back quickly after picking up the two calves’ carcasses which were now in the back of the wagon. He glanced at the sun and grimaced. It must be midafternoon at the earliest! Mary’s tongue would be strengthened and matured with the passage of time like a strong cheese-and all her bitterness was sure to be focused on him.

“Hah!” he muttered under his breath. “If a man can’t take a drink with a friend when he’s tired, what is the point of life?” Scratching at another flea bite on his chest, he lumbered back up into his seat and retrieved the reins, snapping them. His old horse tore up a last mouthful of grass and leaned forward in the traces, jolting the wagon and making the man swear. “God’s blood! You old bitch, be easy! Do you want me to fall off?”

The rumble and clatter of the wagon as it jolted along gradually eased his tension, and he slumped, hardly taking notice of his direction. There was little need, in any case. The old beast knew the way home to Crediton, and did not have to be touched with the whip or reins to take the correct path. Flies left the calves’ carcasses behind as the wagon bumped, and he swore as he waved them away.

Adam was no fool. He knew full well that he was not an ideal husband, and he could easily imagine that Mary had been nervous when they first married, but he judged that his solid career and the money he lavished on her were together enough to please her. Small in stature, she reminded him of a bird, with her slender figure, tiny bones and bright eyes. She was even shorter than he, by at least half a head, and he enjoyed the sense of control this height difference gave him, though he was quick to admit, if only to himself, that he would never consider using it, he was too fearful of hurting her feelings. Adam was not like other men he knew: he did not believe in beating his wife.

The horse was toiling up the hill now, and there were only another three or so miles back to town. Sunlight sprinkled through the branches above to form golden pools on the ground, and he allowed his eyes to ease themselves shut as his head nodded under the soporific effect of the regular hoofbeats. It was the ale, he thought to himself. He should never have had so much. Belching, he began preparing excuses in case Mary was in a bad mood. Merely saying he had accepted the farmer’s offer of a drink after a morning’s hot and sweaty work would be unlikely to win her over.

At the top of the hill the horse paused; he was about to snap the reins in irritation when he heard the noise again, and turned in his seat to stare behind him. This time it sounded like a troop of soldiers, he thought, but he could see nothing. The road twisted too tortuously between the trees for him to be able to see more than a few tens of yards. Giving a suspicious grunt, he jerked the reins and set off down the hill toward Crediton. He did not want to meet with armed men so far from home.

The trees opened out a little now, and over on the opposite hill he could see the outskirts of the town, with a couple of farmhouses showing stark and white under their limewash. Smoke rose behind them from the dozens of fires in the town, and Adam smiled at the sight. His spirits always lifted on seeing his town, surely the oldest and best in Devonshire, the place where St. Boniface had been born. His eyes were fixed on the horizon as he trailed down the road until he was back under the cover of the trees once more, and the view was obscured.

It was here, near the sluggish river, that he saw the Dean. Adam quickly reached down and slid his purse out of sight behind his back. He had no hesitation in offering a few coins for the assistance of the church, especially since the canons were good clients, but he objected to giving alms on the road.

The man heard him approach and turned, peered shortsightedly. “Adam. How are you?”

“Well, Father,” Adam said, ducking his head reverentially.

“A beautiful day, my friend.”

“Oh yes, Father,” Adam sighed. If the priest wanted to talk he could not ride off rudely. Peter Clifford was an important man in the area. Then he brightened. The Dean was an excuse whom even Mary could not ignore.

“Where have you been?” Clifford asked, seeing that Adam had reined in and seemed willing to talk. Inwardly, he too sighed. He was a kindly man, but he knew Adam to be a boorish fellow, and did not greatly wish to speak to him. Still, he forced a smile to his face and tried to look interested as the butcher told of his journey to the little farm in the east to collect the two calves. The buzzing of the flies over the back of the wagon added a touch of verisimilitude to the tale, Clifford thought with a pained wince. They were rising in waves and resettling on the carcasses.

“And who are these, I wonder?” he murmured.

“Who?” Adam asked, his train of thought broken. Turning, he could see at last the source of the noise he had heard earlier.

Coming down the road toward them was a group of men, but these were no ordinary travellers, and Adam felt himself stiffen. They were soldiers.

Out in front were two riders on tired-looking but sturdy ponies. Both wore quilted jacks, stained and filthy from long use, over green tunics. One had on a basinet with the visor tilted up, and held a lance in his hand, while the other wore a long-bladed knife like a short sword. Both stared at the two men by the road, and the helmeted one winked at Adam before passing.

Behind them came another, seated on a massive black stallion which gleamed as if it had been oiled as it passed among the pools of daylight. It was this man who immediately caught Peter’s eye.

He was huge, at least six feet tall, and his demeanor showed he was used to commanding men. It was there in his self-awareness and stillness, in the way he scarcely glanced at the strangers by the side of the road, but rode on, his frown fixed ahead as if searching out new battles. His tunic showed the effects of days on the road, but was made of expensive cloth and bore no device to show his allegiance. Crediton was renowned for its wool, and Peter, like most men from the town, could recognize quality material. This man’s was very good. Light, soft, and fine woven, under its layer of dust it was the fresh crimson of a good, full-bodied wine. Whoever the man was, he must

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