Chapter Seven

Bishop Osbern was a generous host, attentive to the needs of his guests and somehow finding time in a busy day to spend with them. Canon Hubert and Brother Simon were invited to his lodging that evening. Dean Jerome was also in attendance. All four of them sat round an oak table and talked at leisure. The whole room was filled with a wonderful sense of Christian fellowship.

While Hubert basked in it, Simon positively glowed. They were happy to be on consecrated ground again.

‘It has been a testing day for you, I hear,’ said Osbern softly.

‘Yes, your Grace,’ sighed Hubert. ‘The debate was interminable.’

‘So I understand from Geoffrey, abbot of Tavistock. He, too, is a welcome guest here but I thought it more politic to keep you apart from him. If you are locked in legal argument with each other, it is perhaps best to confine your meetings to the shire hall.’

‘A sensible course of action.’

‘Yes,’ added Simon. ‘Thank you for yet another kindness, your Grace.’

‘My concern was not only for you,’ admitted Osbern. ‘A selfish motive was involved as well. Geoffrey has many fine qualities but he can be combative. And inordinately loud. Had we brought him face to face with you then the peace of this house would assuredly have been broken.’

‘Your decision was wise, your Grace,’ said Jerome from behind his lugubrious mask. ‘When Geoffrey raises his voice in Exeter, he is heard by his monks in Tavistock. But,’ he said, quick to absolve himself of the charge of prejudice against a guest, ‘there is no more effective abbot in the whole of Devon. His career has been an inspiration to others and we are delighted to have him beneath our roof once more.’

‘In other circumstances,’ said Hubert pompously, ‘I am sure that we would enjoy each other’s company, but I fear that my position as a royal commissioner makes that impossible at the moment.’

‘Quite so,’ agreed the bishop.

Osbern looked tired and frail. The network of blue veins seemed to be more prominent and there were deep, dark bags of skin beneath his eyes. Simon felt that they were imposing on the bishop when he was clearly exhausted, but Hubert paid no heed to the signs of fatigue. While he had the ear of the bishop, he was determined to make the most of it.

‘You were chaplain to King Edward,’ he recalled.

‘That is so, Canon Hubert.’

‘Was he as devout as report has it?’

‘More so,’ said the bishop fondly. ‘He was a zealous student of the Scriptures and could discuss them knowledgeably. It was a delight to be part of such a Christian household.’

‘Do you imply that King William’s household is not Christian?’

‘Heaven forfend! That would be a gross slander. The King is a devout man in his own way, less given to meditation than King Edward, perhaps, but no less dedicated to building a strong Church which can provide spiritual guidance to the nation.’ Osbern sat back in his chair. ‘I was honoured to be chosen as chaplain to two kings, a Saxon and a Norman.’

‘You are the only man alive who can say that, your Grace,’ said Jerome with a ghoulish smile. ‘You provide the bridge between the two reigns.’

‘Over the chasm that was Earl Harold,’ said Hubert.

‘King Harold,’ corrected Osbern.

‘We do not recognise him as an anointed king.’

‘His people did and so do I. We should give every man his due.

Earl Harold seized the crown at Edward’s death and wore it proudly until it was knocked from his head at Hastings. They do not think of him as a mere earl in this county,’ he said. ‘To the men of Devon, he was and will always be King Harold. With good reason.’

‘What reason is that, your Grace?’ asked Simon.

‘His father’s family held considerable property in the West Country. King Harold himself owned Topsham, which is barely four miles away, and held fifteen other manors in Devon. That is why there was so much resistance here. The sons of King Harold chose to stir up rebellion in Exeter because they could rely on local support for their cause. This city was once under siege.’

‘The lord Hervey de Marigny has told us all about it, your Grace,’

said Hubert. ‘He took part in that siege and praises the bravery of Devonians.’

‘He is right to do so. They are courageous men.’

‘But a conquered people all the same.’

‘Not in their hearts, Hubert. There the flame of freedom still flickers.’

‘Does it?’

‘Baldwin the Sheriff rules here but only because he has a garrison at his back. After all this time, the old resentments remain. Well,’ said the bishop, ‘look at the funeral we had this morning. I took care not to say this in my eulogy because I did not want to incite anger at such a solemn ceremony, but it does seem likely to me that the lord Nicholas was murdered because he was a symbol of what is perceived as Norman oppression.’

‘Nobody could be less oppressive than you, your Grace,’ said Simon.

‘A cathedral with a Norman bishop can be just as potent an image as a castle with a Norman garrison. Church and State are viewed together by the Saxons. Blame attaches to us all.’

‘I have not been aware of undue resentment,’ said Hubert.

‘That is because you have not so far been exposed to it,’

explained the bishop. ‘But it is there below the surface. Is it not, Jerome?’

‘Yes, your Grace,’ agreed the dean. ‘Saxons have long memories.’

‘And indomitable spirits. Even a man as fearsome as Baldwin of Moeles is unable to quell them completely.’ He turned to Simon.

‘But you have not yet met the sheriff, I understand?’

‘No,’ said the other. ‘Nor do I wish to, your Grace.’

‘Why not?’

‘Simon flees from boisterous company,’ said Hubert paternally.

‘He is still shaken by the encounter we had with one of the lord sheriff’s men.’

‘Oh?’ said Osbern. ‘Who was that?’

‘Berold the Jester.’

The bishop grinned. ‘A humorous fellow!’

‘Only if you find humour in blasphemy, your Grace,’ said Hubert as he worked up some indignation. ‘We were shocked and disgusted by his antics. Had the man stayed longer, I would have upbraided him in the strongest terms.’

‘Why?

‘Berold the Jester — mark this, your Grace — had the gall to appear before us in a Benedictine cowl.’

‘That sounds like him!’ sighed Jerome.

‘He is a law unto himself,’ said Osbern easily. ‘He will stop at nothing.’

Hubert was not appeased. ‘Register a protest on our behalf.’

‘To whom?’

‘The sheriff.’

‘There is not much point in that,’ said Jerome gloomily. ‘Berold is a licensed fool and the sheriff encourages his outrageous behaviour. The marvel is that he only came to you in the guise of a monk. He has worn the mitre of a bishop before now.’

‘There is no real harm in the fellow,’ said Osbern.

‘I disagree, your Grace.’

‘Do not take it personally, Canon Hubert. Ignore the jester.’

‘What if he comes to taunt us again?’

A smiling Osbern spread his arms in a gesture of tolerance.

‘Turn the other cheek,’ he suggested.

It was late when they retired to their apartment and Ralph Delchard had to suppress a yawn. Grateful for time alone with him at last, Golde took the opportunity to hurl questions at him.

‘Why was the sheriff in such a jovial mood tonight?’ she said.

‘Because he thinks that he has solved the crime.’

‘Has he?’

‘No, Golde.’

‘Have you told him so?’

‘Gervase did that office for me, but Baldwin would not listen to him. He prefers to believe that he has Nicholas Picard’s killer languishing in one of the dungeons.’

‘What will happen to the man?’

‘He will be convicted and hanged.’

‘Even though he is innocent?’

‘Innocent of the murder, my love,’ said Ralph, ‘but guilty of a hundred other crimes. Weep no tears for him. He has robbed and beaten travellers for years. When he found the murder victim lying in the wood, he even stripped him of his rings. What kind of villain thieves from the dead? No,’ he continued, raising a palm to hide another yawn, ‘he is not worth a heartbeat of sympathy.

He deserves to hang.’

‘Will nobody speak on his behalf?’

‘Baldwin is resolved. The man must die.’

‘Is there no way to save him?’

‘Not from the sheriff’s wrath,’ he said. ‘What we are hoping to do is to find the real killer. That will at least spare the prisoner the ignominy of going to his grave for a murder he did not commit.

He has crimes enough to fill his coffin without that unjust charge.’

‘Do you have any suspects in mind?’

‘One or two.’

‘Who are they?’

‘The first is a certain Walter Baderon.’

‘Who is he?’

‘A knight in the service of the abbot of Tavistock. Captain of the guard at the North Gate when Nicholas Picard rode through it for the last time. Hervey talked to the man this evening. He told me of their conversation over our meal tonight. We both think Baderon merits investigation.’

‘Why should he wish to kill the lord Nicholas?’

‘That is what we need to find out.’

‘Surely the abbot is in no way involved?’

‘Stranger things have happened, Golde.’

‘Who else is under suspicion?’

‘You are a torrent of questions tonight.’

‘I am interested, Ralph.’

‘And I am weary, my love. Interrogate me in the morning.’

‘But you will leave at first light.’

‘Then you must wake me up in the middle of the night to examine me more closely.’ He embraced her gently. ‘I will give you all the answers you require in the dark. That is a promise. In any case,’

he said, releasing her, ‘I have questions of my own to put.’

‘To me?’

‘Who else?’

‘I am at your disposal, my lord,’ she said with a mock curtsey.

‘When was the rift healed?’ he asked.

‘Rift?’

‘With the lady Albreda. You and she were talking away as if the pair of you were old friends. Your tongues were wagging so much, I wonder that you had time to put any food in your mouths.’

‘We had much to discuss.’

‘That was not the case on our first night here.’

‘Things have changed.’

‘How?’

‘We got closer.’

‘When?’

‘Who is a torrent of questions now?’ she teased him.

‘The lady Albreda is a lump of ice. How did you manage to melt her?’

‘She offered the hand of friendship.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I am a woman. She felt that she could confide in me.’

‘And did she?’

‘Yes, Ralph.’

‘I love scandal,’ he said, rubbing his hands. ‘Tell me all.’

‘No.’

‘But I am your husband.’

‘That makes no difference.’

‘Golde!’

‘I was sworn to secrecy.’

‘You can trust me.’

‘I can,’ she said, ‘but the lady Albreda cannot. Besides, there was no scandal. She simply wanted to unburden her soul. And apologise for her coldness towards me.’

‘There must be something you can tell me.’

‘There is, Ralph.’ She kissed him. ‘I love you.’

‘Something about Baldwin’s wife, I mean.’

‘I can tell you that she is unhappy, but you guessed that for yourself.’

‘He has the look of an unruly husband.’

‘So does Ralph Delchard.’ They shared a laugh. ‘I am not holding anything back in order to annoy you. I gave her my word, Ralph.’

‘I understand.’

‘You always respect a confidence. So must I.’

‘No more questions, then,’ he decided. ‘Except perhaps a last one.’

‘Well?’

‘Did the lady Albreda speak fondly of Nicholas Picard?’

Golde was caught unawares and her expression betrayed her.

Ralph was content. Giving her a kiss of gratitude, he swept her up in his arms and whirled her round. Golde was soon laughing.

‘I thought that you said you were tired, Ralph.’

He gave a chortle. ‘I soon will be, my love.’

It was well after midnight when he got there. Tethering his horse, he made his way on foot towards the manor house. A crescent moon was shedding enough light to guide him but retaining enough shadows to give him ample cover. He crouched in the bushes to study the building. Though he had never been inside it, he had a clear idea of what he would find there. He also knew about the hazard which he had to overcome in order to reach the house in the first place. Waiting until a cloud drifted across the moon, he made his way round the property in a wide circle so that he could view it from all directions and consider every avenue of escape. It was an hour before he was ready to move in.

The dogs were waiting for him. Four of them were on patrol, mastiffs with keen ears and strong jaws. Two were asleep but the others remained alert, padding up and down outside the front of the house. When one of them heard a sound, it gave a warning bark which brought the sleepers awake in an instant.

They raced to join the other guard dogs and all four of them went sniffing off into the darkness. He was ready. Instead of trying to avoid them, he knelt down and guided them towards him with a humming noise. They bounded forward through the undergrowth, sensing an intruder and growling with pleasure at the prospect of action.

Then the miracle happened. When they reached him, four dogs who could have torn him apart did nothing of the kind. They sniffed all around him, stopped growling and wagged their tails.

One even gave him an affectionate lick. The man continued to hum to them until all four animals were lying happily at his feet.

After patting each in turn, he made his way towards the house.

Tetbald the Steward was poring over a document when she came into the room. Her sudden entry made him look up in astonishment. She was disturbed and dishevelled. He rose to his feet at once.

‘Is something amiss, my lady?’

‘What are you doing, Tetbald?’

‘Preparing for my visit to the shire hall,’ he said, indicating the pile of charters on the table. ‘I need to know the wording of every document. I did not expect you to rise so early. That is why I am working in here.’

She looked anxiously around. ‘Do you have the box with you?’

‘What box?’

‘The wooden box which belonged to my husband.’

‘No, my lady.’

‘Then where is it?’

‘I have no idea.’

‘It was kept in his bedchamber.’

‘Then it should still be there.’

‘It is not, Tetbald. I have just checked.’

‘One of the servants must have moved it.’

‘I gave clear orders that it was not to be touched,’ she said sharply. ‘My husband kept valuable items in that box. I have been searching for the key to open it.’

‘The box must be in the house somewhere,’ he insisted.

‘Well, it is not in his chamber.’

‘Let me see.’

It was past dawn but Tetbald still needed the candle to guide them up the dark staircase. When they entered the bedchamber, he held the flame over the table on which the box had formerly stood. There was no sign of it.

The lady Catherine became increasingly nervous. ‘We must find it,’ she said, biting her lip. ‘It was the place where he locked important material away for safety. My husband was always opening and shutting that box. I could hear him from my own chamber.’

‘It has to be here,’ he said, conducting a search. ‘One of the servants may have moved it in error and forgotten to replace it on the table.’

‘It is not here! I feel it!’

‘Do not upset yourself, my lady.’

‘Who took it, Tetbald?’

‘I do not know,’ he said, holding the candle in the darkest recesses of the room. ‘What made you want it?’

‘I had a dream that it was being stolen.’

‘There is no question of that. Nobody could get into this house.’

‘But someone could get out,’ she argued. ‘What if one of the servants made off with the box?’

‘They would never get past the dogs, my lady.’

‘In my dream, the box was taken by a man.’

‘Then your imagination was playing tricks on you. Who would want to take a box when there are things of much greater value to steal? Let me rouse the servants, my lady. One of them will know where it is.’

He was about to move away when a gust of wind rapped hard on the shutters before pulling one wide open. It flapped to and fro in the wind. The lady Catherine’s anxiety turned to panic.

She ran to the shutters and saw that the catch had been broken.

Tetbald quickly reached the same conclusion. He looked out through the window.

‘We have had an intruder, my lady.’

‘He stole that box!’

‘Why?’

‘I saw him!’ she said with a shiver. ‘I saw him in my dream.’

‘But how did he reach the house?’ wondered Tetbald. ‘The dogs are trained to attack. One of them must have heard him. Why did they not bark?’ Another thought struck him. ‘What else did he steal?’

Engelric defied their expectations. When they took their places behind the table at the shire hall, the commissioners felt certain that the first witness that morning would be yet another dispossessed Saxon who wished to roar in anger at them. The old man who limped in through the door was anything but bellicose, giving them a cheerful wave of greeting as if they were friends from whom he had been long parted. Short, wizened and white-bearded, Engelric supported himself on a stick. His face was mobile, his mouth almost toothless. Accompanied by a younger man, he made his way to the bench at the front and sat down.

Since he could only speak his native tongue, Engelric had to be examined by Gervase Bret who translated the old man’s answers for the benefit of his colleagues. Married to a Saxon, Ralph Delchard had by now picked up enough of the language to be able to understand it fairly well but he lacked Gervase’s speed and fluency. Hervey de Marigny was fascinated by the old man but Canon Hubert would soon grow impatient at the plodding pace that was imposed upon them by the use of an interpreter. Trying to estimate the witness’s age, Brother Simon wondered how many reigns he must have lived through.

After introducing himself and his colleagues, Gervase administered the oath then began his examination, speaking slowly and with deliberation.

‘What is your name?’

‘Engelric, son of Wulfgar.’

‘Please state your claim.’

‘It is simple,’ said the other with a shrug. ‘The holdings at Upton Pyne belong to me. They were granted by royal charter at the time of King Edward, who held me in high regard.’ He nudged his companion who produced a document from the satchel on his lap. ‘Here is the charter in question. You will recognise the seal of King Edward of blessed memory.’

The document was passed to the commissioners for inspection and Engelric’s opening words were translated by Gervase. After scrutinising the charter, Hubert passed it on to Ralph.

‘It seems genuine enough,’ said Hubert, ‘but completely worthless. That land was granted to the abbot of Tavistock by a charter which renders this one invalid. Later documents supersede the abbot’s claim.’

When Gervase translated, the old man was ready with his reply.

‘Those holdings were not taken from me to be given to the abbot,’ he said. ‘They were exchanged for property that was already owned by the abbey but further afield and less profitable to farm. I yielded up my land in the firm belief that the abbey would give me theirs, but they refused to do so. That is why I am here today. To ask for the return of land which was unfairly taken from me.’ A second nudge brought another document out of the satchel. ‘Here is the deed of exchange.’

The document produced far more interest as there had been no mention of it during the debate with the abbot of Tavistock himself. Offering himself as an injured party, the abbot was, it seemed, guilty of inflicting an injury himself by reneging on a transaction. Engelric had produced the king’s writ to prove that an exchange should have taken place. The commissioners were impressed. Having studied the returns for the whole county, they knew that over a thousand estates were surveyed in Devon yet barely a tenth remained in the hands of the men who held them before the Conquest. The fact that Engelric was one of the chosen few showed how much respect he had earned from his new overlords.

‘This man was cheated out of his land by the abbey,’ said de Marigny.

‘I suspect that he was not the only one,’ said Ralph. ‘I will enjoy asking our choleric abbot why he forgot all about this exchange and remembers only the slights inflicted on him.’

‘Let us not get diverted by this,’ warned Hubert, holding the second document. ‘Though this, too, has the feel of authenticity, it does not alter the situation. By diverse means, the holdings at Upton Pyne came into the possession of Nicholas Picard. This old man and the abbot of Tavistock are locking horns in a tussle that neither can win. Later grants make theirs null and void.’

‘Not necessarily, Canon Hubert,’ said Gervase. ‘We do not yet know the substance of the other claims. If they turn out to be fraudulent then the property could still revert to the abbey.’

‘Or to Engelric,’ said Ralph. ‘We must find a just solution.’

‘Ask him why he was allowed to keep his manor,’ suggested de Marigny, eyeing their witness with admiration. ‘He must have been a man of some distinction in his day.’

‘He still is,’ said Gervase.

He spent an hour questioning the old man and extracted a wealth of information from him about the disposition of land before and after the Conquest. In spite of his age, Engelric had a fierce memory for detail. What was most startling was the total lack of bitterness which he displayed. There were no wild accusations, no cries of defiance and no acrimonious recriminations. All that Engelric asked for was land which he once lawfully possessed. Gervase had to curb his natural sympathy for the Saxons and de Marigny had to remind himself that sentiment played no part in judicial decisions, but it was Ralph who was most deeply affected by the evidence that was given.

Engelric’s story was that of Golde’s father. They shared the common fate of so many proud thegns. In listening to the old man’s history, Ralph realised that he might be hearing words from the mouth of his dead father-in-law and it gave him a new insight into the predicament which his wife faced as a young girl in Herefordshire. Canon Hubert was not persuaded that the witness had a legitimate claim but he was quick to plunder the old man’s memory of details relating to other property in the vicinity. Though he might not have advanced his own cause, Engelric had been an immense help to the commissioners.

When it was time to leave, he used the stick to lever himself up again.

‘What will happen now, young man?’ he asked Gervase.

‘Your claim will be considered alongside the others and we will reach a judgement. You will be informed of that decision immediately.’

‘What of my documents?’

‘You may have those back but we may need to see them again.’

Engelric nodded then bestowed an appreciative grin on the table.

‘Thank you for hearing my plea,’ he said politely. ‘I do not have long to live and I would like to have my land restored before I die.’ He looked around warily. ‘A word of warning, friends,’ he hissed. ‘Do not trust the abbot of Tavistock. He takes without giving in exchange. Do not enter into any transactions with him.

He could shame the Devil!’

Gervase smiled, Ralph chuckled and de Marigny asked what the joke was. Gervase’s translation provoked a bout of blustering from Hubert, but the canon soon calmed down. Engelric had been a revelation to them. He was a sure-footed guide through the marshes of property ownership in the county and his insights were invaluable to them. They were sorry to see the old man limp out of the shire hall on his stick.

Saewin hurried through the streets of Exeter to deliver his summons. Uncomfortable memories of his last visit to the house surfaced, but he tried to push them to the back of his mind. This time, at least, he might earn some gratitude. Eldred saw him coming and went into the house to fetch his mistress. The two of them were waiting on the threshold when the reeve came up.

‘Well?’ asked Loretta. ‘Am I summoned?’

‘You soon will be, my lady,’ said Saewin. ‘I came to give you fair warning. The first witness has been examined and sent on his way. The second is now before the commissioners.’

‘Then I am next.’

‘Yes.’

‘Thank you, Saewin. I appreciate your coming in person instead of sending a servant with the message. I will remember this kindness.’

‘That pleases me, my lady.’

‘Engelric has departed, then?’

‘He has,’ he said defensively. ‘But do not ask me what transpired in the shire hall because I am unable to tell you. I take no part in the judicial process. I merely summon the witnesses.’

Loretta smiled. ‘You have already told me what I wished to know.’

‘In confidence.’

‘Yes, Saewin. In confidence.’

She smiled at him again and he felt discomfited. Loretta looked more stately than ever and she was supremely assured. Saewin had forgotten exactly what he had told her about the commissioners, but it seemed to have added a new optimism.

He shifted his feet and tried to excuse himself.

‘How long will it be?’ she enquired.

‘It is impossible to say.’

A studied contempt. ‘She will not detain them for long, surely?’

‘Asa is entitled to advance her claim.’

‘What claim? She has never owned property in her entire life.’

‘The commissoners agreed to hear her.’

‘They might just as well listen to Berold the Jester.’

Saewin winced inwardly. He tried to sound as impartial as he could.

‘Asa has a right to speak,’ he said calmly. ‘They would not have summoned her otherwise. Her claim is somewhat unusual but it is no less valid for that. Your turn will soon come, my lady. It is Asa who is facing the commissioners now.’

‘How do we know that the letter is not a forgery?’ asked Ralph Delchard.

‘I will swear that it is not,’ she said.

‘We need more proof than your word.’

‘Then I will show you another letter from the lord Nicholas.

You can compare the handwriting and see that both were written by him.’

‘Or forged by the same hand.’

‘There was no forgery, my lord.’

‘Do you really claim that Nicholas Picard wrote this?’ he said, holding up the document. ‘What would make a man in his position consider such a strange commitment?’

‘Have you never given a gift to someone you loved, my lord?’

‘Of course. But nothing of this size.’

‘He was generous whereas you are mean.’

Even Hubert smiled at her rebuff. Asa was in no way intimidated by the commissioners. Her manner was composed, her answers clear and unequivocal. Fearing that they might have to use Gervase once more as an interpreter, they were pleasantly surprised to learn that Asa had a good command of Norman French.

It made possible a livelier dialogue.

‘Let us go through it again,’ said Hervey de Marigny as he ran an approving eye over her. ‘We are not trying to catch you out.

We simply ask for confirmation that this letter was written by the lord Nicholas.’

‘Then show it to his wife.’

‘That is a preposterous suggestion!’ protested Hubert.

‘Why?’ she said.

‘The lady Catherine would be outraged.’

‘If you believe that, you do not know the lady Catherine. After all those years of marriage, she had the measure of her husband.’

Asa pointed to the letter. ‘She will read it without a tremor. And she will confirm that her husband wrote it.’

‘In spite of its extraordinary contents?’ said Hubert.

‘The lady Catherine is an honourable woman. She would not lie in order to discredit me. On the other hand,’ she added, ‘the letter is my private property and I would not willingly let anyone but yourselves view it. There must be several documents at the house which bear the lord Nicholas’s hand. Ask to see one and place it beside my letter.’

The commissioners held a silent conference. They were in no doubt that Asa was speaking the truth. The letter was clearly genuine and its underlying affection was quite moving. It was not difficult to see what attracted Nicholas Picard to Asa. She had a pert beauty that was enhanced by her poise and her forthrightness. There was a sense of independence about Asa which somehow made her more appealing.

‘How long did you know the lord Nicholas?’ asked Gervase.

‘For two years or more.’

‘And did you … were you … during that time … is it fair to say …’

Ralph came to his rescue. ‘What my colleague wishes to ask is how close the relationship actually was. The lord Nicholas was clearly somewhat more than a casual acquaintance.’

‘You have read his letter, my lord. We were lovers.’

‘In the carnal sense?’

‘What other sense is there?’

Ralph grinned, de Marigny chuckled, Gervase looked away, Hubert stared at her in sheer disgust and Brother Simon put his hands over his ears in alarm. Asa was unperturbed at their reaction.

‘You are men of the world,’ she said brightly. ‘Well, some of you are. I am sure that you understand. Love does not only exist within marriage.’

‘It should!’ boomed Hubert. ‘It was ordained for lawful procreation.’

Asa almost giggled. ‘That is not what we called it.’

Gervase made an effort to control his embarrassment. ‘We are moving away from the crucial question,’ he argued, taking the letter from Ralph. ‘What we must ask is whether this is a binding document or merely a letter of intent.’

‘A letter of intent,’ decided Ralph.

‘It is a form of will, my lord,’ she insisted.

‘Yet it is not dated or witnessed.’

‘He wanted me to have that land.’

‘Then he should have left it to you in his last will and testament.’

‘Do we know that he has not?’ she asked.

The question threw them all into disarray. It was minutes before they disentangled themselves sufficiently to continue their examination. Asa remained alert and responsive throughout and gave an honest account of her relationship with her benefactor.

What value they could place on the letter they did not know, but it could not be dismissed until they had sight of the last will and testament of the deceased. Having assumed that it would favour the widow, they were now forced to speculate that it might contain some alarming surprises for her.

Before she left, Asa took the opportunity to ask them a number of pertinent questions and she seemed satisfied with their answers. Hubert and Simon had exuded censure, but the other commissioners had been objective judges. Reclaiming her letter, she glided serenely out.

Gervase was entranced. ‘What a remarkable young woman!’

‘With a good fighting spirit,’ observed de Marigny.

‘She clearly loved the lord Nicholas. And he loved her.’

‘At a price, Gervase.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Did you not see what was right in front of your eyes?’

‘I saw a self-possessed woman who stood up for herself.’

Ralph exchanged a knowing glance with Hervey de Marigny.

‘It is easy to see that you were never a soldier,’ he said, slipping an arm round Gervase. ‘Asa is a comely girl and I have seen her kind in many towns. That sweetness did not disguise her occupation. If she can charm those holdings out of Nicholas Picard, she must be a remarkable young woman.’ He whispered in his friend’s ear, ‘But she is also a prostitute.’

Gervase felt the hot blush rising swiftly up his face.

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