Chapter Twenty-Seven.

As the stave struck Nicholas’s nose and the man jerked backwards to lie unconscious on the ground, Simon gave a loud guffaw and applauded vigorously. He strode to his servant’s side, clapping him on the back as he stood glowering breathlessly at his victims. ‘Well done, Hugh!’

The bailiff and Baldwin had been among the first to rush from the hall to see what Hugh meant by his seizure of the staff, and they had witnessed almost the whole fight. When Baldwin had put his hand to his own sword, Simon had shaken his head; he had seen Hugh fighting against larger numbers before now, and the sight of his man knocking over all the fellows from Thomas’s entourage was no surprise to him. An English farmer’s son soon learned to protect himself from all predators.

Baldwin glanced about him at the men lying all around, one or two groaning, Nicholas snuffling and shaking his head, still stupefied by his broken nose. ‘Yes, you fought well – but what was it all about?’

Hugh leaned on his borrowed staff, trying to catch his breath. ‘They were holding the Fleming so he couldn’t fight back, and that’s not right, sir. When I tried to get them to free him, they threatened me, and shoved me away, so I got angry.’ He gazed about him, his spirits sinking a little as he realised how many witnesses there had been to his fight. At Sir Baldwin’s side was his wife, and Hugh saw Jeanne was staring at him with open-eyed astonishment. ‘Well, they shouldn’t have pushed me,’ he said grumpily.

‘The steward said his master had ordered him to attack van Relenghes, didn’t he?’ said Simon.

Thomas stood listening at the step to the hall, his features strained and pale. His face told the story only too well: he had never conceived that the Fleming could have survived. Of course, van Relenghes had his guard, but Godfrey was a mercenary, not someone who’d risk his neck against overwhelming odds like this. Thomas had assumed the Fleming would lose.

‘It was nothing to do with me. The man was lying.’

‘Your servant, Thomas?’ Simon said disbelievingly. ‘He’d tell such a lie against you?’

‘Of course he did! Probably wanted to rob the Fleming,’ said Thomas.

‘What did you tell your man to do?’ Simon asked him. He had walked nearer, and now stood staring down at the Fleming. Van Relenghes’s face was covered in gore, and Simon glanced at Petronilla, who gave a shiver, but nodded, and went to the trough to fill a bucket. She began cleaning his wound, a long gash from ear to nostril.

Thomas felt a stab of satisfaction. Nicholas had done his job well, no matter that he had given the game away afterwards. Thomas had insisted that his man should ruin the Fleming’s good looks, and that scar alone would succeed. Many women like their men to have marks on their faces, but this one would permanently damage his handsome features. Thomas heard the bailiff speak again, and glanced up.

‘I said, what did you order your man to do?’ Simon demanded. ‘Look at him! Why did you order him to wound a guest in this house?’

‘I can answer that, I think, Bailiff.’ Lady Katharine descended the steps, her finger pointed accusingly at her brother-in-law.

‘This was how Thomas, my dear brother, tried to honour the memory of my husband and my son. He ordered the punishment of this man on the day of my son’s funeral just so he could have his revenge on the one who betrayed his secret to me.’

Thomas made a feeble little gesture, which vaguely indicated the people about him. ‘My lady, surely – um – we should talk about this in private. There’s no need to discuss family affairs in the open with servants and villeins to witness it all.’

‘Why should we not discuss it here? This is my home, Thomas!’ she snapped.

‘No, Lady. It is mine! And I choose not to speak of such matters in the court like a serf begging alms. If you wish to talk to me, I shall be inside.’

So saying, Thomas gathered his pride to him like a man trying to wrap himself up in a tattered and shredded cloak. He gave Simon a cold glance, up and down, and strode up the stairs, past the lady and into the hall. A second or two later Godfrey appeared, blinking and rubbing an ugly bruise on his temple.

As if in general agreement that the entertainment was over, the crowd began to disperse, some laughing, many winking and grinning at Hugh, who suddenly realised he was still gripping Daniel’s staff of office. He shamefacedly lowered his head, walked to the steward and passed it to him with a mumbled word of regret for taking it so rudely.

‘Don’t dare to apologise,’ Daniel said, struggling not to laugh. ‘After what I’ve seen today, you’re welcome to it whenever you need it. What a fight! I swear I haven’t seen such a staff-fight since the Welsh wars!’ He clapped Hugh on the back. ‘And for protecting the manor’s guest, whatever the greasy little bugger may be like, you deserve the thanks of all of us here. Come inside and drink wine with me, friend. I’d hate to think you were my enemy, after all!’

But before returning to the hall, Hugh went to Petronilla, still squatting at the side of the Fleming. Godfrey was assisting her, holding a damp cloth to the bloody cut, while the girl gently wiped at the clots on the man’s face. He lay quite still, his face a perfect mask of pain.

‘Thanks,’ Godfrey said simply. ‘I’m only sorry I missed seeing your defence of him.’

Hugh shrugged. ‘He’ll need that wound stitched.’

‘Yes, well, someone can do it later. It’s not a hard job,’ said Godfrey easily.

Hugh turned away. Baldwin and Simon were already on the steps which led back to the hall, and Hugh was about to follow them when Godfrey touched his arm.

‘I threatened you, when you were trying to serve drinks in the hall. I’m sorry about that. After you protected my master I can’t help feeling we owe you something in return.’

Hugh stared at his feet. He wasn’t used to accepting gratitude from others, and didn’t know how to respond.

Godfrey grinned crookedly. ‘Don’t worry, I can’t promise you money…’ Hugh’s morose expression deteriorated, ‘… it’s only this: I know your master and the knight have been trying to find out what happened that day…’

‘If you know something, you should tell them. I’ll only get it all mucked up.’

‘Very well.’ Godfrey glanced down at his master. ‘How is he, Miss?’

‘He’ll live.’

‘Let’s see your master now, then.’

Hugh nodded, and shouted to two stablemen at the other side of the yard. They ran over and, under Hugh’s supervision, dragged or assisted his assailants to the barn before taking a door off its hinges and lifting the Fleming onto it. Godfrey stopped them carrying him into the hall. ‘I doubt whether the Lady wants to see him like that. Take him to the kitchen, it’s warm enough, and he can’t come to any harm.’

Hugh walked slowly back to the hall. Strangely, although he was aware of a sense of pleasure at having beaten so many men, a satisfaction which was made more intense by the fact that he had done so to protect a man who would loathe owing him a favour, Hugh felt something else as he walked over the threshold.

It was a feeling of profound sadness, as if some doom was about to be laid upon the house and all who dwelt within it, and as he passed into the hall, Hugh shuddered with the premonition of evil.

Margaret crossed the floor with Simon, and stood a little to the side of Lady Katharine. The bailiff’s wife couldn’t help noticing that the latter was strangely animated, and although the red-rimmed eyes and bright nose gave her a feverish look, her posture was regal, especially in her disdainful treatment of Thomas, who sat near the fire with another cup of wine in his hands.

When Hugh came back in, Margaret took a jug and filled a pot, handing it to him, smiling. ‘Well done!’ she said warmly. Hugh shrugged ungraciously, but with real pleasure, while Simon filled more pots and passed them around to all those assembled.

‘I ask you all to drink to Hugh,’ he boomed, ‘a hero among servants! Hugh!’

Margaret returned to the side of Lady Katharine and poured wine for her. The bereaved woman drank deeply, holding the cup with both hands to steady it. She needed to steel her nerves for the inevitable confrontation with Thomas, Margaret thought, and it was only when she had refilled Lady Katherine’s pot that she allowed her attention to wander around the room again.

Anney was nowhere to be seen. She had been out with the others to witness the fight, but still hadn’t returned, and Margaret clicked her tongue at such dereliction. It was especially important that she should look after her mistress on a day like this, when she had not only buried her child but had also endured the shame of a fight between guests at the funeral party. Margaret tut-tutted silently. She would have to speak to the steward about Anney.

The priest huddled at the back of the hall near the door, even more pale than usual, his eyes dull and listless. Catching Margaret’s eye, Brother Stephen gave her a ghastly smile.

Scarcely knowing what he was doing, he raised his drinking pot to his lips and took a deep draught. It felt as if the walls of the room were closing in on him; the place was stifling with all these people! He knew he was in enormous danger still, even though Petronilla had gone and destroyed some of the evidence. There were too many who had seen him up on the moors that day… and he was unpleasantly aware of Godfrey’s cool gaze on him. Then Godfrey looked away, and with a freezing feeling in his bowels, Stephen saw him look from Sir Baldwin to the bailiff.

Simon was insisting that Hugh should drink all his wine and have another cup to wash it down. In the midst of his delight it was some time before he noticed the grave-looking servant standing behind Hugh. ‘Are you all right, Godfrey?’ he cried bluffly. ‘Your master’ll recover from his scratch, never fear! I’ve seen much worse.’

‘So have I, Bailiff. Many times,’ said Godfrey drily. ‘That wasn’t why I was quiet. I wish to make a statement in front of the whole company, but am not sure how to begin.’

The Lady Katharine had returned to her seat by the fire; her steward stood behind her, gripping his staff once more. Her expression was one of deep shock, as if after burying her husband and her child, and then witnessing the small battle at the very entrance to her hall, she was close to collapse.

Stephen saw the vacuity of her expression and walked to her side. He touched the cross at his waist, his face filled with compassion, then reached out towards her, but his hand hovered a few inches from her shoulder, as if he did not dare interrupt her thoughts.

Simon felt that in that simple, humble gesture, Stephen had given him more of an insight into his character than all the sermons he had heard the cleric give or the conversations he had held with the man. The priest might appear cold and unfeeling, even perhaps cruel sometimes, but he was still a man, and perhaps, Simon thought, watching him from the corner of his eye, perhaps he was a man with the same desires as any other, no matter what his oaths implied. For there was a hint of reverence in his way of standing there next to his mistress, like a knight who has been overwhelmed by the beauty of a lady.

Lady Katharine looked up at last, noticing the silence that had gradually fallen all about her. Seeing Godfrey at its centre, ready to make some sort of announcement, she gave a small frown and waved her hand. ‘Do you wish to speak, Master Godfrey? Please go ahead.’

‘If you are sure, Madam,’ he said, and shot a look at Thomas.

‘I doubt whether there is anything you could say which would surprise me. Is it about Thomas trying to make me sell off parts of my land?’

The merchant was sitting upright now, and had fixed him with a piercing – no, Godfrey amended, a threatening stare – but one in which the fear of personal discovery was all too evident. ‘I’ve got nothing to hide,’ Thomas said gruffly.

‘On the day your son died, my Lady, this man arranged to meet my master. Sir James demanded that I should be present, in case of any risk to himself, and I thus overheard their entire discussion. I think Sir James has already told you the general tenor of what they discussed.’

She nodded, with a contemptuous glance in her brother-in-law’s direction. ‘Yes. Thomas demanded money in order to persuade me to sell parts of my land to van Relenghes. My brother-in-law was prepared to sell his nephew’s birthright for his own gain.’

‘That’s right, my Lady,’ Godfrey acknowledged, and lowered his head. ‘And I confess that I held my tongue about it, and for that I beg your pardon. There were two reasons, my Lady: first was the consideration that I was paid by my master, and for a man like me that consideration must carry weight; but second was my belief that something odd was being planned by my master. If I were to leave his service I could not have discovered what he intended.’

‘Which was?’ Simon interrupted.

‘Nothing more than the ravishing of Squire Roger’s wife.’

There was a shocked intake of breath from the gathering. Simon was quiet with anger. ‘You mean this?’

‘Oh yes, sir. James van Relenghes is a conceited fool who believes that no woman can reject his advances. You see, he wanted revenge on the squire. My master once captured a hostage and ransomed him, allowing him to go free. The prisoner was a French Duke, and the squire – your husband, my Lady – heard of this and forced the Fleming to repay all the money he had won. All hostages of rank were to have been sold to the King in order that he could ransom them himself, and he paid a reasonable rate, but van Relenghes was greedy. He wanted the lot. Squire Roger got the money and gave the Fleming some time to escape before he told the King – thus in van Relenghes’s mind Squire Roger cost him a king’s ransom and his career.’

‘So he was motivated by revenge?’ Simon said.

‘Yes, sir. The Fleming hated the squire, and wanted to mete out punishment on his wife and child. Well, I think he thought the best way to ruin the Lady Katharine was to show she was guilty of infamy, taking another man soon after her husband’s death. And he thought he could make her take him. I don’t think he wanted to merely damage her reputation. No, I reckon he thought that by showing her to be unfaithful to her husband’s memory, he could also hint that she was adulterous during the squire’s life, that he was cuckolded. That way the Fleming would get back at the man he really hated.’

‘And you chose to keep this secret?’

‘I remained at his side all the time to ensure my Lady was safe. Perhaps I was wrong, but if I had told of the scheme, my master must have found out that someone had spoken. It would not be hard to guess that I had opened my mouth. And I thought it better to remain with him, to see what else he would attempt. Especially since I had my own debt of honour to repay. I used to fight with the squire – oh, many years ago. So did another man with whom I have spoken.’ He saw no reason to say that the man who had given him much of his information was Thomas’s own servant, Nicholas.

Lady Katharine gave him another nod, slower this time.

‘And now, my Lady, allow me to make amends to you for my secrecy. Here and now, I accuse your brother-in-law of murdering Herbert, your son.’