Cursed in the Blood: A Catherine LeVendeur Mystery

BOOK: Cursed in the Blood: A Catherine LeVendeur Mystery
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.
The book is for Jeff and Diana Russell,
for their years of support, advice, and friendship,
as well as for giving me a place to stay while I finished this book,
and for greeting me with champagne.
With love and thanks.
A ditch on the north side of Hadrian’s Wall, Scotland. Ascension
Thursday, 3 ides of May (May 13), 1143.
 
 
aðwear afeallen thaes folces ealdor, Æðelredes eorl; ealle gesawon
heorðgeneatas that hyro heorra lœg. Tha ðœr wenden forð wlance
thegenas, unearge men efston georne: hi wolden tha ealle ðœr twega.
lif forlœtan oððe leofne gewrecan.
 
 
Then fell in battle the people’s lord, Æthelræd’s earl; everyone
saw, all his hearthsharers, that their leader lay slain. Then went forth
the proud thanes, fearless men, hastened there gladly. They all wished
only one or the other, to lay down their lives or avenge their
loved one.
 

The Battle of Maldon
,
lines 203—209
 
 

T
his way, Lords!” The old man panted with exertion and fear. “You’ll see. We touched nothing; I swear, by Saint Cuddy’s cow! They’re just as my boy found them.”
“Stop mewling and get on with it!” the rider, Urric, shouted at the pair running before him. He muttered to himself as he watched them stumbling to keep ahead of the horses, “Stupid
neyfs!

“What’s that?” His friend Algar guided his horse closer to better hear him.
“I said, they’ve not touched it? Those two must be cracked if they haven’t taken anything. Insane to have come to us at all. Do they expect old Waldeve to reward them? He’ll just as likely have them hanged from the portcullis for bringing him such news.”
Algar nodded agreement, then his face changed as a sudden thought struck him.
“What do you suppose he’ll do to us, then?”
Urric only grunted. It was too late to worry about that. The peasants had stopped, the older of them bent over breathless from the run across the hilly countryside. The younger pointed to a pile of branches and brush torn from the sides of the ditch.
“Under here, Lords,” he told them. “Nothing has been moved. I covered them again as best I could, but it looks like the birds have been at that leg, already.”
He paused, staring at the ravaged limb above the leather boot.
Urric’s expression didn’t change. “Get on with it,” he ordered. “Show me.”
The men on horseback waited while the peasants pulled back the branches covering what was left of the bodies. When the job was finished, they dismounted and examined the remains.
“It’s them, for certain,” Urric said after a moment. “Both of them. No doubt of it. The faces aren’t that much marred.”
“And the boy, as well,” Algar added sadly. “Poor lad. His first time out with a sword. You can tell that they all went down fighting, though. Not that it’ll be much comfort to the old man. His two eldest sons and his grandson, all slaughtered. This’ll kill him.”
Urric snorted, then gagged at the rising stench.
“Not that old bastard,” he said. “I know him too well. Their deaths won’t kill him. If anything, this will make him fiercer; it’s hate that’s kept him alive this long. No, we’re the ones who’ll die in the war this tragedy will cause.”
Algar nodded, but not bitterly. It was right that murder should be avenged. As Lord Waldeve’s man, it was Algar’s duty to see that those who had slain his kin paid the price for their crime. If Algar died in the pursuit of that justice, he trusted his lord would see his own killer punished, as well.
Urric agreed in principle, but he was older and had seen more battle than Algar. Occasionally he wondered if the honor involved in blood feuds was worth the loss of so many good men. He had always firmly quashed such uncertainties. They stank of cowardice and the preaching of Norman priests.
He looked at the bodies again. The sight was enough to erase all doubt. These men hadn’t just been his lords, but his friends. Those who had slaughtered them deserved not only to die, but first to feel the pain that Urric felt now.
“You!” he pointed at the older peasant. “Tell me again. How did you find them?”
“It was my nephew, here, that did.” The man gestured toward the youth, who wiped his runny nose and looked up at them with a sullen expression. “He went to look for a ewe that escaped from the lambing pen. Thought she might have gone off somewhere private to drop it. They do that sometimes.”
“I don’t care about the habits of sheep,” Urric warned him.
“Ah, yes … no, of course not.” The man glanced nervously at the sword and knife Urric carried. “He saw the birds circling and thought it might be the lamb stillborn. When he saw what it really was, he pulled the brush back over them and ran for me. I sent for you at once, Sir.”
“And it’s just as he left it?” Urric asked. “Nothing touched since then?”
The boy shook his head vigorously. His uncle answered for him.
“What was here then is here now,” he insisted. “Saving what the birds got.”
Urric nodded. He bent over one of the bodies and motioned for Algar to do the same. Algar’s eyes widened and his stomach contracted abruptly. He gripped Urric’s arm in anger and disbelief. At the end of each right arm was only a ragged stump.
“Their right hands have been cut off!” he gasped. He looked around wildly for the missing parts.
“You won’t find them,” Urric said. “It was done after they died. See? No bleeding to speak of.”
“Taken for trophies?” Algar asked. “But why hands? I’d have thought it would be their heads.”
Urric shook his head in worry. “So would I. Worthy adversaries lose their heads. What reason could they have for cutting a man’s hand off?”
The peasant assumed it was a general question.
“If they be thieves, Lord,” he said. “Thieves and poachers, and oath-breakers of course.”
Urric gave him a look that made the man wish he had kept his own counsel. He stepped back, away from the bodies. Perhaps he and his nephew could just slip away now.
Algar saw them edging off.
“Stop at once!” he shouted.
They froze.
“Help us wrap the bodies of the lords Alexander, Egbert and Edgar in those blankets,” he ordered. “Algar, can your horse carry them all? You can ride behind me.”
Reluctantly, the peasants complied. Urric watched them closely as they set each body on a blanket and bound it with rope. Death as such didn’t bother him, neither did ambush and murder. He’d done plenty of that, himself. The Peace of God hadn’t reached the North, and there were no roads safe from brigands. Or from one’s enemies. And every man had enemies. But there was something wrong about this. Robbers stole everything, down to woolen hose and shifts. Enemies at least took weapons and jewelry as honest booty. Urric shook his head. Nothing had been taken from Waldeve’s sons, not even their swords, now lying next to the bodies. The only things missing were their horses and their hands.
He shuddered, then quickly crossed himself, muttering a prayer of protection.
With much effort, the four men managed to get the bodies onto Algar’s horse and tie them securely. The peasants turned back to Urric, looking at him with a mixture of hope and terror.
“You can see we took nothing,” the older one pointed out. “Sent word to the reeve right away.”
Urric had mounted and reached down to pull Algar up behind him. Algar paused. He gestured toward the peasants.
“They’re harmless, Urric,” he whispered. “They could have looted the bodies and hid them again. And, as you said, they’ll get no thanks from Waldeve.”
Grudgingly, Urric agreed. He reached behind his saddle for his pack. Rumaging through it for a moment, he brought out a square of linen. He balled it up and tossed it to the man.
“Here,” he said. “It’s to wear next to your skin. Softer than wool.”
The man felt the material with a look of delight, stuffed it in his belt and with much bowing, backed away from the horseman until he judged he was far enough to turn and make a dash for home. His nephew was already well ahead of him.
As the men rode off, Algar nudged Urric. “Linen? What’s he going to do with that?”
“If he’s smart, give it to a pretty girl in exchange for her favors,” Urric answered. “But it’s just as likely that anyone so dutiful that he reports a body without stealing so much as a pair of boots will probably give his reward to the parish priest for the good of his soul. Idiot, I say!”
He spat against the wind. Behind him, Algar wiped the spittle off his cheek.
 
The peasants ran until they were sure they were out of sight of the horsemen. Then they stopped and leaned together to catch their breath.
“Do you think they believed us, Uncle?” the youth asked.
“Of course they did.” The old man held up the linen with a laugh. “They think we’re too much in awe of them to lie.”
“Stupid bastards,” his nephew said.
 
Waldeve, thane of the shire of Wedderlie, which consisted of three villages, woods, a good fishing stream and not much else, sat alone
in his bed chamber. He knew before Urric and Algar had returned that the bodies found had been those of his sons and grandson. He’d known his boys were dead three days ago when they hadn’t come back. His wife had tried to convince him that they had simply been overtaken by the dark and taken refuge in a village or a priory. But he’d have none of it. He was as sure of their deaths as if he’d heard the final screams and felt their souls flit through his body, hunting for a way around Purgatory.
He wanted to grieve for them, but he couldn’t make himself feel anything, not even for Edgar, his eldest grandchild. A promising boy, almost as bright as the uncle he’d been named for. Waldeve swallowed the bile that rose with the memory. His fifth son, also Edgar, had been intended for the church. He could have been bishop of Saint-Andrews, or Glasgow, or even the new see at Carlisle. Instead the boy had gone mad while studying in France and married a nun, or something like that. He’d only seen Edgar once in the last twelve years, and that hadn’t been a good meeting. The boy had come home only to announce that he was giving up his family and selling the land his mother had left him, all for a woman with no title whom he hadn’t even slept with yet.
The old anger stirred Waldeve more than the immediate grief.
“My lord, Urric and Algar have returned.”
The voice was soft and expressionless. Waldeve sighed. The fact that his wife had come to tell him instead of sending a servant sealed his certainty. He looked up. Adalisa stood just outside the curtain, her hand gripping the thick material so tightly her knuckles were white. Her face was blotched with tears.
“What do you have to grieve about?” he snapped. “They were none of yours.”
Adalisa took the blow with little more than a flicker of an eyelash. He’d said crueler things.
“Your sons have been laid out in the Hall,” she answered, the emphasis barely noticeable. “Do you wish to see them?”
He glared at her in response and stood up. He took a step, then stopped, his eyes closed. He swayed a moment. Adalisa put a hand out to support him, then drew it back. The old man took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders and raised his chin proudly. She held the curtain aside as he passed through, not touching her.
 
 
Urric and Algar stood well back as Waldeve examined the bodies. The others in the hall were silent in horror. The only sound was the rustle of mice in the straw on the floor.
Finally Waldeve turned and faced his household.
“Someone’s going to Hell for this,” he said in a voice all the more terrifying for being so low and steady. “And I intend to send them there one piece at a time.”
In the upper regions of the keep a woman began to scream. The noise was soon accompanied by wails and lamentations from the others. Lord Waldeve closed his eyes. He recognized the loudest. It was Sibilla, Alexander’s wife. She had lost both husband and son. It was right now for her to mourn. He wouldn’t rob her of it. He only wished she’d do it somewhere else.
“My lord, shall I call the priest?”
Waldeve started. He had forgotten his wife was still there. “Adalisa, I have work to do. We don’t need that noise now. Can’t you quiet them?”
“Of course not,” she told him. “It’s only proper that they should shriek their loss to heaven. I would rather you joined them than hold your cold silence, keeping these good men standing when they are no doubt tired, hungry, thirsty and heartsore themselves.”
She gestured at the two soldiers.
Algar stood stiffly and tried to appear impervious to human needs. Urric’s left eye twitched in what might have been a wink. Quickly, Adalisa turned back to her husband, who sighed and waved them away.
“Go.” he said. “Wash, eat. Then sharpen your swords.”
BOOK: Cursed in the Blood: A Catherine LeVendeur Mystery
8.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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