Chapter Eighteen.

‘This is maddening. There is a secret in this vill, I am sure of it,’ Baldwin said bitterly as they left the Parson’s place. ‘Look at that fellow’s attitude in there. Did you see how he reacted when I asked about this man Athelhard? He almost chewed through his cup!’

‘You’re reading too much into it,’ the Coroner protested. ‘There may be some secret, but it’s probably just that they’ve been holding back on some of their grain, trying to conceal it from Lord Hugh, or perhaps it’s avoidance of the tithes or some other tax. There are always secrets in little vills like this. They have to struggle hard enough just to survive, God knows, and you can’t blame them for keeping a bit back for themselves.’

‘My Heavens! And this is the terror of Exeter talking?’

‘There’s no call for sarcasm. I’m only pointing out that there could be a perfectly innocent explanation.’

‘Let us find this woman Meg and see what she thinks,’ Baldwin decided.

‘We need to talk to the other child as well,’ said Simon. ‘The girl called Joan, whom I saw returning from the moors on the day of the inquest.’

‘Perhaps,’ Baldwin said, ‘but later. She can wait. Let’s see this Meg first.’

‘Very good,’ Coroner Roger agreed, but as he spoke he stumbled on a dried rut, and his ankle turned painfully. ‘Ach! Christ Jesus! My leg.’

‘You cannot walk down the lane,’ Baldwin observed.

‘Christ’s bones, trust this to happen.’

‘Do you want me to help you back to the inn?’ Simon asked.

‘No. I can manage,’ the Coroner said. ‘Thanks all the same.’ He pointed to a tree. ‘Bring me a branch and I will be fine. I’ll get back to the inn, you two go ahead without me.’

‘If you’re sure,’ said Simon. The inn wasn’t that far away, fortunately. He hurried to cut a stave.

Baldwin lent Roger his shoulder while they waited, but his thoughts were not with the Coroner. Since hearing that Mad Meg lived out at the western tip of the vill in her own assart, Baldwin had wanted to go there and talk to her. He felt a curious certainty that if he could visit the place with the level-headed Simon, he would be able to confront his dream head-on and reduce the potency of his fear. Somehow his dream had grown more virulent here, as though something in the vill associated itself with his own dark past and drew upon his own guilt and secrets. It was foolish thinking, immature and irrational, which irritated him beyond belief, but as Simon passed the stick to the Coroner, he felt relieved that he and Simon would continue alone.

Once Roger was gone, hobbling slowly back to the inn, the two approached the spring. Baldwin could not help his steps from faltering. A fine sweat broke out upon his forehead and back, but there was no heat. He felt stony cold as he stared down the track between the trees. Aylmer stopped at his side and looked up into his face.

Simon, of course, could see nothing. For all his superstition, he was quite insensitive. He peered down the trackway. ‘You think this is the road, then?’

Baldwin said nothing, merely moved on along the track, his own sense of foreboding growing as he let himself slip under the shadow of the trees. He felt like Orpheus entering the Underworld.

Still in his garden, Gervase felt dread overwhelming him. He knew that the three men who had visited would not be content with half truths for long. The knight in particular had a peculiarly intent gaze, as though he could see right through a man’s deceits to the filth and lies that had held him together all his life. Talking to him had been difficult, like confessing to a foul deed before a Bishop, but there had not been the slightest hint of Absolution at the end of it. He had not confessed with honesty, he had concealed more than he had admitted. It would remain on his conscience until somehow he let it out. And yet he couldn’t.

He wanted to cry, to bawl his head off, to admit his crimes and receive some form of penance, but he knew that he must wear the mask of an ordinary village Parson. Only a few knew his guilt, and they knew because of their complicity.

If he could, he would give all his wealth, such as it was, to bring back that life. He was a sinner, for he had murdered. Doubly a sinner, for he had withheld the extreme unction and viaticum. He had knowingly condemned a man to Purgatory or Hell, thinking he was guilty of murder, but now the real killer had struck again.

The thought forced him to close his eyes and weep. It was unbearable, this guilt. Maddening and incurable. Perhaps he should travel to Exeter, confess his crimes to the Bishop, admit all that he had done and wait to hear what penance he would receive. At least then there would be an end to it, although he might well be condemned to a monastery hundreds of miles away, to spend the rest of his days in silence, without the solace even of sunlight playing on flowers, of the feeling of warmth on his back. Even the simple delight of standing in a summer’s shower would be lost to him for ever.

He stood, feeling suddenly ancient, and walked through his house. Shutting the door behind him, he went over the road to his chapel and entered it, genuflecting to the altar, before which lay the body of young Emma. Two women sat beside her, and he recognised them as Gunilda and her daughter, Felicia. They were holding vigil. Gervase nodded to them, then approached the altar himself. He knelt, pressed his palms together in the modern way and begged for forgiveness.

It was unsatisfying. There was no relief for him in prayer. There never was, not since his realisation of his guilt. That recognition had so devastated him that his faith had suffered accordingly. Now he hardly knew the right words to use, as though God had taken them from him, as though God was Himself disgusted and wanted nothing more to do with him.

He heard steps and the door shutting. Looking over his shoulder he saw that Felicia had left, and now only Gunilda sat, rocking gently by the side of Emma’s corpse.

‘It’s all right, Father,’ she said. ‘He’ll not want any more.’

The woman was plainly losing her mind. Her sanity, which Gervase doubted had ever been better than fragile, was shattered. He tried to sound comforting. ‘That’s good.’

‘You think I’m talking rubbish, don’t you?’ she smiled. ‘But Samson won’t come back now. This was the last one he fancied. He’ll leave the others in peace.’

Gervase was tempted to point out that her husband was dead, but his tongue clove to his palate in sympathy at her ravings.

‘He got Aline pregnant, you know. He loved her, I think. And Felicia, too, but she was lucky and miscarried. It would have been difficult for me if she’d gone to term. But Aline, she was scared. I think Samson thought she might go to her father. Swet would have been very angry if he’d learned that Samson had molested her, wouldn’t he?’

Gervase felt his belly contract at her words. Surely she was wrong. She must have told someone if she had known about her man’s raping of young girls. Nobody could stand by and permit such a heinous crime, could they?

He was grateful to be interrupted by Felicia returning. Patting Gunilda’s hand, he stood. She hardly appeared to notice, as though she had already forgotten he was there, and he walked from the chapel, going into the cemetery to seek peace. The sun was lower in the west now, and he stood watching it move towards Tongue End, musing on the evil that there was in the world. When he continued walking, his sandal was loose, and he irritably scuffed it against the ground. The sole came loose and he stamped his foot in anger. It was as if even his footwear was conspiring to make life difficult.

And it was then, as he stifled his cursing, that he heard the low, doleful wail coming from beneath him; from beneath the soil, from the grave itself, and he gave a short shriek of horror, walking backwards, his gaze fixed in terror at the ground.

The truth was forced upon him. God sought to punish him, the vill, everyone, for their evil: the curse was returned to life!

‘No! God, please, no!’ he whispered. At that moment the hounds began to howl again, and he felt his bowels loosen as though filled with water. A primeval horror rose and engulfed him, making him gibber, and then he turned and ran from that hideous place, over the road to the security of his own house and his wine.

Only later did he realise he had bolted past the open door to his chapel and the safety that the cross should have offered him, and that realisation made him weep still more bitterly. His soul was taken by demons, and now it must be tormented for all eternity in hellfire. Even the cross couldn’t give him solace.

He was lost.

Thomas walked from his house with the feeling that everyone was watching him, although whenever he turned and peered at the houses all about him, he could see no one.

His sow, his pride and joy, was in her yard, enclosed by a solid wall and well-constructed hurdles which she could have pushed over if she had a will, but she was ever a calm, mild-mannered creature, and never bothered. Thomas walked to her and stood leaning on the wall a while, watching her as she snuffled her way through the thick straw piled high all about her. She at least looked unconcerned by accusations or possible trials. All she cared about was the next meal. It was a simple life, one which today Thomas could envy.

The body was gone. That was a blessing, although from the clouds of flies which rose and swarmed about the straw, there was still plenty of Emma’s blood about the place. The corpse had been taken away and was even now probably being bathed and wrapped in her winding sheet. In this heat the vill would want her in her grave as quickly as possible, and since her father was long gone and her mother was insane, there was no need to worry about the family’s wishes.

She was the last of her father’s line. It was a poignant idea, that the youngest member of a family should die and be found in so undignified a manner, lying half concealed in an outbuilding. It made him consider Joan. If he were to be accused in court and convicted, for he had no faith in his neighbours after this morning’s display, then what would happen to his little girl? On a busy road like this, there would be bound to be plenty of felons, draw-latches and thieves who would be interested in a girl like her.

Nicole would do all she could to protect their child, but her own life would become unbearable after Thomas had died. He had seen too many other widows in vills like this for him to harbour false hopes. It would only take one man to decide that she wanted him after he had spent an afternoon on the ale, for him to rape her. And soon the news would spread that she was ‘begging for it, desperate, she was, without a man for so long. Give her one for me…’ Oh yes, Thomas had heard it all before. There had been subtle variations on the same theme when he had married Nicky to protect her from the families of her father’s victims.

Rape wasn’t unknown. It was rarely appealed in court, for the woman must demonstrate that she had suffered, and that meant displaying her torn and bloodied garments, and stripping to prove that she had been evilly used. Not many women would willingly go through that.

He tried to force the ideas from his mind, walking out to the roadway again.

‘So, brother, you may go to gaol soon.’

‘Ivo!’ Thomas breathed. ‘Have you come to gloat?’

‘No, not gloat. I merely wanted to see where the murderer lived. You know, I hadn’t realised you could do something like that. Killing her, yes, raping her, of course, poor child. But eating her? That seems to have shocked even your neighbours here, surprisingly. I’d have thought that the folks here would be fairly stolid, but they seem perfectly stunned at your behaviour.’

‘I’ve done nothing wrong. I never touched Emma.’

‘Come, brother, you don’t have to lie to me! Was she sweet and willing? Or did you have to force her?’ Ivo asked. He held a long staff in his hand, and he leaned on it to smile lecherously at Thomas.

‘By God’s grace, shut up.’

‘Threats again? That’s one way of convincing everyone that you’re innocent, I suppose, although I’d have thought it preferable to maintain a dignified calmness.’

‘Be silent, Ivo!’ Thomas noticed a movement out of the corner of his eye, and looked up to meet Joan’s appalled gaze.

‘Perhaps you think that I would be easy too, like that little girl? Is that it? I am only a clerk, when all is said and done. A Manciple has no military training, after all. I should be easy for a hulking great peasant like you to overwhelm. Just like a little girl. I hope you found her satisfying. It’s a shame that your wife can’t satisfy you any more, but I suppose even you learned that a hangman’s daughter is not the tastiest morsel. Strange. She looked attractive enough when I first saw her and lay with her, but now I don’t think I’d want to touch her with your staff, brother, let alone my own.’

Thomas forgot his daughter as the angry flush coloured his cheeks. ‘You have never lain with my wife, you lying bastard!’

‘Ah, she didn’t want you to know. Perhaps the comparison did not favour you! But yes, I had her three times that first time I came through here after you returned from France. In the one day. You were out working, and – well, so was I in my own way. Ha! But she lacks a certain something, doesn’t she? In the bed. Enthusiastic, but not satisfying.’

With a growl low in his throat, Thomas felt the rage wash over and smother him. It was enough. The taunts had served to flare his frustration and fear into flames of rage, and as he looked at Ivo, there was a red mist, as though there was a fine spray of blood between them. Thomas leaped for him, grabbing for Ivo’s long robe, even as his brother gave a short squeak of alarm and bolted up the road.

Thomas didn’t hesitate. He gave chase, reaching with his long arms for the flapping material before him, and as they reached the Reeve’s house, he caught it. Snatching it quickly, he stopped his brother in his tracks.

Ivo scarcely knew what had happened to him. In an instant he had been halted by an immovable force that reached about his shoulders. He felt like a horse he had once seen, which had been pulling a heavy cart up a track, when a wheel had collapsed. The horse had been going along smartly, and the shock of suddenly halting had caused it to collapse in a heap on the track.

He didn’t intend copying it. Thrusting an arm backwards, he let the cloth fall from him, then gripped his staff in that hand while letting the other sleeve loose. Before his brother could grab at him, he shot off again.

Thomas was caught off balance. He gazed blankly at the stuff in his hands for a moment before balling it and hurling it from him with a snarl and setting off again after his brother.

Ivo had a head start and made good use of it. He turned a corner past the inn and hared down into the pasture bounding the river. Ivo was already almost halfway along towards the river, and he cast a glance over his shoulder as Thomas started to catch up with him.

Ivo had wanted to rouse his brother, but he hadn’t expected the mad bastard to take off so quickly. Thomas looked so slow, with his dim expression and dull eyes, Ivo had felt safe, but Thomas had managed to spring forward like some sort of cat as soon as his restraint was gone. Ivo had expected him to snap, but he had miscalculated, thinking he could lead Tom back up towards the Reeve’s house where he could have him arrested for being a danger to all, but the speed of Tom’s attack had thrown him completely. Instead he had run straight past the Reeve’s place not daring to pause, and now he was in the open land behind the tavern. There was no one here, no one to whom he could appeal for help. As he ran he cursed his decision to taunt and insult Tom, but the idea had seemed too good. Little brother Tom was always swift to rise to the bait and Ivo wanted to show him to be dangerous so that he would be imprisoned – and then he could have a free hand with little Nicky.

Oh God, Nicky! She was so beautiful. A peach. She would grace any bed, with her calm eyes and rich, comfortable body. Her accent itself was enough to excite Ivo, with that soft, nasal French of hers. Ivo had fancied her with a chronic desire ever since that first time he had met her, when little brother Tom introduced them, and the desire hadn’t gone away. He hadn’t really slept with her, of course, that was a lie, but it seemed to have worked – rather too well.

He glanced over his shoulder, only to see that his brother was gaining on him. With a squeak of panic, Ivo tried to force himself forwards with a little more speed, but at his belly was the early cramp of a stitch, and his chest felt ready to explode. Little sparks flared and glowed in front of his eyes, and he could feel his feet growing heavier, as though there was lead in them. In a vain attempt to speed his flight, he threw away his staff, the only defence he had.

Perhaps it helped a little, but soon he could hear Thomas’s stertorous breath behind him again and knew he must be caught. Swiftly he darted right, back towards the chapel. He daren’t look over his shoulder, but an explosive grunt told him all he needed to know: Tom had grabbed for him and missed. In doing so, he’d continued onwards, unable to turn to follow Ivo.

Ivo saw that there was a small group of men standing up near the cookshop by the tavern. He set his feet for them, praying that he might reach sanctuary with them.

‘Stop, you evil shit!’

Tom’s voice sounded as ragged and worn as that of a man who had run a ten-mile course, and it lent Ivo a fresh spurt of energy. In a few moments, he had broken in among the waiting men. ‘He’s gone mad!’ he panted, gripping one man by the shoulder as he bent almost double. ‘He wants to kill me! Call for the Reeve.’

‘He taunted me! Told me he’d slept with my wife!’ Thomas roared.

‘Is that true, Bel?’

The flat, uncompromising tone was familiar. Ivo looked up into Henry Batyn’s unsympathetic face. William Taverner stood at his side with Edgar, and all eyed him coldly while Ivo tried to gather his breath. ‘Help me, save me!’ he managed.

Batyn pushed Ivo from him, and watched Thomas approach, flexing his fists. ‘It’s not right for brothers to fight like this.’

Thomas grated, ‘This is between us. If you don’t like it, don’t watch.’

‘He wants to kill me!’ Ivo squealed.

‘He said that three times he cuckolded me! Would you tolerate that? I warned him, but he wouldn’t shut up.’

‘You’ll be breaking the King’s Peace,’ Taverner said, but there was a tone of excitement in his voice.

‘Leave us alone. We won’t upset anyone else,’ Thomas promised, trying to grab his brother again.

‘Wait, both of you,’ Batyn said, and ran lightly to his house. He soon reappeared, carrying two long staves. Throwing one to each, he stood back. ‘If you’re serious, use these. At least you’re less likely to kill each other than you would be with knives.’

Ivo clutched his staff desperately. He hadn’t used one in years and wasn’t sure he could remember how to – there was skill in using the stances and defences. Thomas looked as though he hadn’t used one for an age either. He stood holding it in one hand as though he was expecting to use it as a lance and was only waiting for a horse to carry him. Then, to Ivo’s faint surprise, he set it down and began to take off his shirt, pulling it from him and throwing it against the cookshop’s wall. Finally he picked up his staff and, holding it before him, he pointed it at Ivo and advanced slowly.

He had no choice. Ivo grabbed his own staff and knocked away Thomas’s as it poked towards his face, then his belly, before swinging in low at his legs. Ivo retreated, but almost fell when his ankle turned on a loose stone.

Immediately Thomas swung back at his legs and Ivo felt the material of his hose rip as a splinter caught. He roared as the blunt end of the pole thudded into his thigh and then scraped all the way down his leg, taking his woollen hose with it. It was all he could do to stay on his feet.

‘Sweet Jesus!’ he whimpered.

He won’t save you,’ Thomas hissed.

He thrust again, and Ivo felt the wood strike his breast. This time he was slammed down onto his back, the breath knocked from him, and he saw Edgar hold Thomas back until he was on his feet again. As soon as he was up, Edgar stood back again and Ivo saw the thick pole aiming at his face. He managed to block the main blow, but it came down and thudded into his shoulder and he cried out with the shock. Suddenly his hand felt weakened, and he couldn’t keep a firm hold of his own weapon.

With the next attack, his staff was knocked aside with contemptuous ease, and Ivo felt the same raking pain as the point tore down his shirt, ruining it. He tried to retaliate, swinging his own heavy staff at Thomas’s head, but his blow was too puny and Thomas merely swept the stave away with a swing of his forearms, and then gripped it in his fist and pulled.

Ivo’s arms were outstretched, his pole useless at his fullest reach, and he was unbalanced. When he saw his brother yank on his staff, he realised he was too late. Thomas slid his hands along his stave, gripping it like a quarterstaff, and brought the butt around. Ivo tried to bring his own pole back to parry, but he was already too late, and at the last moment, as he saw Thomas’s staff thrusting towards his nose, he closed his eyes.

There was nothing else he could do.