Authors: Priscilla Royal
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Historical
Thomas did not need to be told to replace everything with care after he had sifted through. He had searched enough rooms, chests, attics, drawers, and even under floor boards when he was an agent of the Church. As a result, he and Durant finished looking through Larcher’s quarters neatly, quickly, and thoroughly.
“Nothing,” the monk said, turning to his companion.
“Indeed,” the merchant replied, rolling up the last parchment roll and putting it back in the chest. “I had hoped for a name, but I am content that our corpse showed more discretion about his singular duties than I thought him able.”
Thomas circled the rooms one more time to make certain all was well. “Surely we may now send word to the king’s men.”
Durant nodded and started for the door.
The monk followed. “I would advise questioning the apprentices.”
“I agree, although I doubt they saw much.” He looked over his shoulder and smiled. “You do well at this work, Brother Thomas.”
Feeling an unaccustomed warmth, Thomas looked away, but he knew his face was flushing.
“You should talk to the lads. They might tell you far more than they would this strange and curious merchant.”
The two men walked out of the chambers. When Thomas shut the door, he noted that there was no evidence of it being forced. All question about whether the killer had been a guest or a man intent on robbery vanished.
“Larcher may have lived over the shop, but this staircase was private,” Durant said, carefully walking around the servant’s body. “When I arrived, I found one apprentice throwing up in the corner near the stairs. He must have seen the servant, but his reaction chases away suspicion that he killed the man, or even entered his master’s chambers. When he saw me, he screamed, fearing I was the murderer. The sound of his distress brought others from the shop. It was then I ran after you.”
As they reached the bottom of the stairs, the monk noticed the puddle of vomit. “Will you wait for me to talk to them or are you going to fetch the sheriff?”
“The last, and I shall return with him. That will give you time to pose your questions without interruption, and you can tell me later if you learned any fact of note.” He opened the door to the street and began blinking in the weak sunlight as if he had emerged from a profound darkness. “I doubt anyone will think us guilty,” he said, turning to the monk. “I came on a matter of business that anyone at the inn might confirm. You wished to speak further with the craftsman, perhaps about a badge for your prioress. We delayed to search for a killer who may have hidden himself in the house.”
“Simple and reasonable,” Thomas replied.
As he watched Durant hurry down the road, he realized that he was enjoying this brief return to tasks similar to those assigned under the direction of Father Eliduc. But that past work for the Church had been performed as a duty and, as Father Eliduc had suggested, in penance for a sin Thomas never quite accepted as evil. This time, his sole motive was to avenge an innocent woman’s death and save the life of a king. As for the latter, the monk had not realized how deep his loyalty to King Edward was, but it was no less than his dead father would have expected of a son, legitimate or not.
Thomas set these musings aside and went around the corner of the house to the workshop entrance. As he had anticipated, none of the apprentices had gone back to their labors.
Several white faces stared at him as he walked in the door.
“We have sent for help,” he said. “I fear your master has been killed as well as his servant.” He watched for a reaction.
Larcher might not have been loved, but the consequences of his death would be significant for them and the future of their training. With one exception, they were mere boys, and one began to weep. The eldest, Thomas assumed, was the longest in the craftsman’s service and most likely to be the spokesman for them all. “Are you near the end of your apprenticeship?” he asked the young man.
The youth nodded. He had a spotty beard and scarred face, marks left from burns when he poured hot metal into the stone molds. “I am John from the High Street. Master Larcher left me in charge when he could not be here.”
Thomas asked if he had seen anyone entering or leaving the house by the private entrance.
The lad shook his head. “We have just discussed this. I was here and kept the apprentices busy, Brother. We have a large order for Ryehill Priory and little enough time in which to make the badges. Work keeps us occupied, and we pay no more attention to the world than a monk might in his priory.” He winked.
A young man not too ground down by a hard master, Thomas thought and smiled in return. “Why was an apprentice in the entrance?”
“Master Larcher had not been down to the shop this afternoon. Although we were delayed in completing the day’s allotment for Ryehill,” he said, glancing at a small apprentice hiding under a table, “we have individual requests as well as a large order from Walsingham Priory itself. I sent the lad to seek instructions on what design we should do next in the hours of light left in the day.”
Noting John’s look at the boy, the monk motioned for him to continue. If the craftsman was as harsh as Thomas suspected, he was glad there was one here who owned more benevolence. John would make a good master in his time.
“I heard the boy cry out and, with club in hand, rushed to discover the cause. A couple of the other apprentices followed without similar protection.” He shook his head. “Boys are curious creatures and often own too little sense.”
Unless she had a journeyman son, the monk thought, Larcher’s widow should be grateful for this fellow’s help until the continuation of the business was settled. The youth was wiser than many men of greater years.
“When I got there, I found one who called himself Durant of Norwich comforting our lad. This man had discovered the cause of the commotion. Then he swore he would take responsibility and sent us back to the shop. I saw him call to you. We know nothing else, Brother.”
“Who found the servant’s body?”
John pointed him out and waved the lad forward. Bending close to the monk, he whispered, “Be gentle. He is of a timid nature and now owns a belly to match.”
A small, thin boy approached who shook so badly he could barely stand. The lad reminded Thomas of Gracia, but she had a bolder look. Looking into the eyes of the young apprentice, the monk was reminded of a young deer facing his hunter.
Thomas crouched so he would not loom over him and put a hand on his shoulder. “I know you went to seek the advice of your master. Tell me what happened when you got to the door of his private entry.”
“It was open. I knocked. No one came. I walked in. I did not see the servant. I called out. No one answered.” The boy’s face turned a pale green.
Thomas squeezed his shoulder. “Well explained, lad! Now nod if I am right about the rest.” He lowered his voice. “You walked up the stairs.”
The boy nodded.
“You saw the servant lying outside the master’s chambers.”
He swallowed and looked away.
“I know you saw the dagger, but do you recall if the door to the rooms was open?”
The boy shook his head, then raced outside.
Thomas heard him retching. Turning to John, he smiled. “He answered my questions well and was very precise.”
“He is the second youngest in the shop but very careful about details, Brother, and an honest lad. I have never caught him doing anything but what he was assigned.”
“Did anyone else go up the stairs after you came to the boy’s rescue?”
“None of us did. As soon as the lad saw the blood and knife, he fled to summon me. Before he could reach the shop, he vomited. After that, the merchant arrived and dismissed us. I watched the man. He immediately summoned you and did not climb the stairs first.” He hesitated. “I doubt he had time to go upstairs before I arrived. Our lad said the man from Norwich held him while he vomited.”
Thomas nodded, then spoke with the other apprentices, calming the fearful and answering the questions of others who chose to hide their terror behind curiosity.
John went out to talk with the boy who had found the corpse.
Before long, they heard the sound of men approaching. Thanking John for his help, the monk warned him that the king’s men would question them further and suggested the child be spared that. “He knows nothing that you do not,” Thomas said.
“I shall become the finder then,” John replied. He looked around at the other apprentices. “As we all agree?”
“But there will be no jests about my weak belly!” He grinned.
He will also be a good father when he becomes a journeyman and can wed, Thomas thought, and left the shop.
Durant’s expression was as grim as the scowling leader of the armed men.
Thomas guessed this was the sergeant, who served under the crowner, and that he would not be pleased to be called to this crime. The murder of a prominent man was a troublesome thing for those charged with enforcing the king’s law. When a man living in the poorer alleys of the town was killed, the death might be forgotten if not quickly solved. But the town leaders would demand a hanging for Master Larcher’s death and a swift justice at that.
The monk waited until the merchant had led the party into the house and then emerged alone shortly thereafter. “Are we needed?” he asked, suspecting they were not.
“Let us depart, Brother. Did the apprentices have any information?”
When the monk told him of the conversation, Durant nodded. “I now agree with you that the manservant must have been stabbed as the killer was leaving and that Larcher knew the murderer or he would not have offered him such a fine wine.”
“If the poison killed him before he could cry out, I would agree.”
Durant directed the monk to a quieter part of the street, away from others who were passing. “You know that I am an agent of the king. I am here because an assassin has been sent to Walsingham to kill King Edward when he arrives to worship at the shrines. Larcher was my contact, and his duty was to discover who this person was. Sister Roysia was one of his sources of information.”
“She was Prioress Ursell’s companion when the prioress met with those who came on pilgrimage. We have another set of ears in Walsingham Priory, but the nun was the better source.” Briefly, he smiled. “There are those who will tell a woman much because she does not have the ear of God like a priest does. I was often amazed at the news I got from Sister Roysia through Larcher.”
“Her death was not an accident then.”
Durant raised an eyebrow. “Did you ever think it was?”
“She had a piece of torn cloth in her hand when I found her body.” He looked meaningfully at Durant’s robe. “Well-woven and of somber color.”
“It was not mine, nor was it Larcher’s.” He grabbed the monk’s shoulder. “You must trust me, Brother. Search my room at the inn if it will satisfy you, unless you think me clever enough to destroy the robe first.”
“I would not kill someone as useful as Sister Roysia. That you might believe more readily. As for Larcher, there was nothing about him that was subtle, even in attire. He loved to dress in cloth that equaled the quality of his wine. You noted the color of the robe he was wearing when he died. It was not somber.”
Thomas conceded, and then added, “I saw a man in the street who hid in the shadows near the bell tower the night she was killed.”
“That was me. I saw you kneeling beside the corpse.”
“If Larcher was—”
“I saw a man flee when he heard the scream and believe it was the craftsman. I did not completely trust Larcher, nor did the man who sent me here. From the information I was given before I arrived, the craftsman believed the nun hoped soon to learn who the assassin was. I chose to follow him and, if needed, get the information without the need for further messages. Later, when I met with Larcher, he confessed he had gotten no information from her before she died.”
“And you have learned nothing from your other sources?”
Durant shook his head.
“You think the murderer is in Walsingham?”
“The deaths of the nun and the craftsman suggest that is the case.”
Thomas rubbed at his eyes. “Then we have little time. If the killer is here, the king must be coming soon.”
“That is my conclusion, although the precise date is unknown even to me.”
“Do you wish my help in discovering the name? I cannot promise success, but more of us in the hunting party bodes ill for the prey we seek.”
“I would be grateful, Brother, but it would be preferable if your prioress were not involved.” He held up a hand. “I respect the allegiance you owe her. If needed, tell her what you must and do as you think best. I trust your judgment and your discretion.”
Thomas swore it.
“I shall ask the neighbors here if they witnessed anything, before the king’s men do.” The merchant glanced over his shoulder toward the craftsman’s house. “And one or two others.”
“And I will seek more information where I think it safe to do so.”
“May you find that child, Brother.” Durant grinned at the surprise on the monk’s face. “I thought her clever but wondered if she had a questionable master.”
“If she had, she might be fatter.”
With a laugh, Durant embraced the man he now seemed to trust, promised to meet him soon, then hurried off.
Watching him walk away, Thomas knew he had agreed to do this for the sake of the king. As for the wine merchant’s allegiance, the monk had seen proof that the man worked for King Edward, and he did not doubt that Durant would kill anyone without hesitation if the need arose. Such ruthlessness made him uneasy, yet there was something about the man that drew Thomas to him as much as caution urged him to keep his distance.
Thomas prayed that his decision to join Durant in this endeavor would not prove deadly.
From the shadows of a narrow alley, an indistinct figure watched the armed band enter the craftsman’s house.
The assassin shrugged. There was little to fear from the king’s men. They would find nothing.
With a war raging against the Welsh, King Edward needed money. A special levy was likely. Merchants had fat purses to thin. But why should they pay a new tax to kill a distant foe when their immediate safety was threatened? Fretful mortals grew less eager to pay for wars when violence was amongst them, and the craftsmen of other towns had occasionally risen against the king’s collectors with some success.
For this reason, the king’s men had cause to keep the wealthy merchants content. It took time to seek an elusive killer, thus haste would be favored. The traitor was confident that the sheriff would drag one of Larcher’s apprentices away for hanging, an easy sacrifice to the needs of this king’s war.
Durant of Norwich and Brother Thomas were more worrisome.
Of least danger might be the monk. Staring at the tall man, whose red-gold hair sparkled even in weak sunlight, the slayer knew Thomas was as quick-witted as he was handsome, but surely the man would never guess who had killed the foolish merchant. The monk and his prioress were accustomed to those who slew out of greed, jealousy, or fear. They had no experience of men who shed blood so the land might be rid of a dishonorable sovereign and, in due course, graced with a nobler king. But the assassin had no quarrel with the two religious. If they had the wisdom to stay apart from this matter and leave Walsingham soon, they both could live.
The wine merchant was a different problem. From what the traitor knew of his work for King Edward, the man should die, and perhaps he would. Yet there remained the possibility that his services could be bought. Many who served one master for jewels and equally glittering promises would be willing to obey another if the bag of coin was heavier or the rewards more tempting.
Durant was clever, skilled, and too valuable to be lost if his loyalty could be transformed into a wiser one. If not, the slayer concluded, a knife in the throat while he let himself be pleasured in a dark alley would be a simple task. Apart from a few, most spies did not long survive the turmoil of dark plots.
The murderer tensed.
The monk and wine merchant were leaving.
Slipping deeper into the alley, the traitor pressed against a wall and further pondered what should happen next.
Durant would seek witnesses who might have seen someone approach the private entrance, although he probably suspected that would be a waste of time. To let oneself be noticed was the work of an amateur, and Durant must know his quarry was no apprentice in these matters. Still, the man had no choice but to ask his questions, and the assassin was pleased that this futile search would keep the wine merchant busy.
As for the monk, it was probable that he would also look for information elsewhere. Talking to the little beggar was his most likely choice, and she knew nothing. Had she, she would have been strangled by now, a crime any reasonable person would attribute to the dangers of living on the streets.
Peering around the corner, the killer confirmed that no one was approaching this alley and decided it was safe to leave as well.
Some would say it was unwise to remain in Walsingham after killing the craftsman and advise escape. But that counsel failed to take into account what was involved in the greater goal of killing a king. Not only was it necessary to stay until the king came to Walsingham, but fleeing without good cause sparked interest. By themselves, the king’s men might not recognize a fugitive as a murderer, but Master Durant could and would not hesitate to point a finger in the right direction.
Mistakes in the execution of lofty deeds must never be made. Even little ones could be fatal to the purpose. Careful though the assassin had been, there was one thing that had not been done, something that should have been destroyed after the death of Sister Roysia.
But discovery of the nun’s body had been unfortunately swift. There had been little time or privacy to take care of the matter then. Ryehill Priory might be small, but the nuns did occasionally walk the hall outside the tower door. Escape without detection from the bell tower had been paramount.
With all the nuns at prayer, now was the right moment to remedy that error.
If anyone had been standing outside Master Larcher’s house just then, they might have seen a vague shape become one with the darkness of that narrow alley leading to the nun’s priory. Perhaps they would have asked, in this town of sacred shrines, if the creature they witnessed was mortal at all. Might it be a damned soul still seeking absolution when there was no longer any hope of it?