An entertaining, fast-paced read that will please readers looking for mystery and enchantment set amid castles, horses, counts, and peasants.
Enjoyable characters, a detailed setting, and atmospheric adventure intertwine in this multilevel mystery. Durwin is a congenial and persistent investigator, and readers will look forward to his future adventures.
Unexpectedly, the door led directly into the death chamber; I almost fell over a priest kneeling in prayer at the side of the sage's bed. Rolf had been laid out, with covers drawn up to his chin, so that there was no way of telling whether he had died as peacefully as he now seemed, or wracked with agony. Only the cyanosed condition of his face and the extreme blueness of his lips showed that he was not merely asleep. Although I had attended sickrooms with Sage Guy, I had little experience of corpses. The only one I had seen display that bluish color had been an overlain infant, which implied that Rolf de Mandeville might have been smothered.
Still the church bell tolled his knell.
The room was crowded with furniture and people. Two men stood close to another fireplace, much smaller than the one in the hall. Two women sat on chairs at the far side of the bed, both of them veiled, which was the fashion then, although the veils were sheer enough that their faces were quite visible. One of them was sobbing and almost doubled over, her face in her hands. She peeked up momentarily as we entered, and I judged that she was either faking her grief or at least exaggerating it for the sake of propriety.
A large man stood behind her, hands laid comfortingly on her shoulders. Like her, he wore rich robes trimmed with ermine, so he must be the count and she the countess. He was gray-bearded now, but still impressive, conveying power and physical strength, quite unlike his late brother. He would never be a man to trifle with, and at the moment he had his eyes fixed on the corpse and his teeth bared in a rictus that suggested more fury than grief. Richard de Mandeville might be sincerely mourning his brother, but he was also thirsting for revenge, potentially as dangerous as a wounded lion. A brother murdered in his own house must be intolerable humiliation for him.
The second woman was younger, with wisps of ash-blond hair trailing from under a hastily-donned bonnet. She seemed tall and lean, with features carved from ivory, but her eyes were closed, her hands clasped and her lips moved in silent prayer. Normans could be blond, just as Saxons could be as dark as Welshmen. Apart from the tremor of her lips, she might have been a saint immortalized in marble. I found the lack of emotion disturbing: was she bored, or in shock?
The fireplace and chairs with backs showed that in normal times this room must be the family's private parlor, so the door to the left almost certainly led through to the count's bedroom. In a castle this small, two rooms might well be the full extent of his personal quarters.
William quietly closed the door, with himself on the near side, making eight people, a bed, and a corpse in a small room not intended for such a gathering. The cot that almost filled it had been set up for the family guest, probably fetched hastily after his late arrival. Although the shutters had been opened to the dawn, the room stank of bodily fluids, a common consequence of recent death. A collection of flasks, jugs, and goblets by the hearth told of a late-night party.
The count roared, "By what right do you bring that staff in here?" He had the sort of voice that could be heard across a battlefield.
Startled, I bowed. "I have a game leg, my lord."
"Oh. I see. Battle wound?"
"Riding accident, my lord."
"Ahem. You may keep the staff, then. You are the Saxon adept?" Could he not see my cape? Either Count Richard of Barton was badly rattled by his brother's death, or his brother had inherited all the brains.
"Aye, name of Durwin, my lord. I came as fast as I could."
The priest had risen also, and turned to glare at the intruders. He was a tall, spare man, surprisingly young to be a priest, although his sculptured clerical robes made him seem more slender than he probably was. His features, while handsome, seemed naturally set in a disdainful expression. He was clean-shaven; the coronet of hair around his tonsure was reddish brown. His dislike of me and all I stood for was obvious.
"I thank the Lord who delayed your arrival so that you could not practice any of your foul demonism over a dying man. You can do no good here now, if you ever could, which I doubt. There is no place for heresy in this place of mourning. You may go." His voice, like his sneer, was pure Norman cleric.
The bell boomed again. The two men by the fireplace remained as silent as grave effigies. I peered past the priest at the corpse.
Although Rolf had been no warrior like his brother, he would not readily have submitted to having a pillow held over his face, yet I could see no signs of a struggle. On a chest by the bed stood a wine flask, a rosary, a silver goblet, and a candlestick holding half a candle. The least jostle should have sent them all flying. I lurched a couple of steps around the priest in that direction.
I said, "I have known Sage de Mandeville for many years, Father, and I mourn his passing also. He was a man of learning and skill, who certainly did not deserve this horrible end."
"Nevertheless," the priest snapped, "he has been gathered to the Lord, and the manner of it does not concern you. I said: You may go!"
No layman should talk back to a priest, no Saxon to a Norman, so I answered softly, "If my life were in danger, should that not concern me, Father? Yesterday Sage Archibald died suddenly, today Sage Rolf, and I am an adept. I cannot help but feel that this concerns me!"
"If that is how you think, then you should leave this place as soon as you can."
Needless to say, I did not. I knew that my continued presence hung by a thread, but there was a murderer at large, a monster who should be caught and brought to justice. To put that truth in words might enrage the count, who must know it, yet might take the statement as a slur upon his honor and his house. But so far he had not backed up the priest, which was promising.
I said, "I would not presume to call Sage Rolf a friend, Father, but I feel an obligation to bring his murderer to justice."
"Murderer? Guard your tongue, my son! And even if there were such a crime, how do you imagine you could find the culprit? Will you draw up a horoscope? Or cast bones? Do you expect blood to flow from his mouth if the murderer approaches his bier?"
Still the count stayed silent. Surely he must want to know the truth about his brother's death?
I stuck my neck out another furlong or so. "I may be able to name the killer when I have learned more." I looked to the count. "May I examine your late brother's hands, my lord?"
The priest said, "Certainly not."
"Why?" Even in the hallowed presence of death, Count Richard was a loud man.
Still the bell tolled.
"Because the color of your late brother's complexion suggests that he was suffocated, my lord. If so, he may have fought his murderer, and his fingernails may show signs of a struggle."
I knew at once that I had erred. The priest did not shrug his shoulders, but his contempt somehow seemed to blaze more strongly. The count lost interest in me.
"There was no such struggle. My brother was taken sick in the night. I was here when he ceased to breathe and I assure you that no one suffocated him."
"There are other ways to identify a malefactor, my lord," I said hastily. "There are ways to kill at a distance." Such as poison. I laid a hand over the goblet on the chest, but did not lift it.
"You can summon demons, for instance," the priest said.
"I cannot do so, Father, although I do not doubt that others can." I removed my hand. "I rode with the deceased all day yesterday, and I can testify that he was strong and in excellent health then." I had so many questions to ask, but I was a Saxon interloper whose credentials and even religious orthodoxy were both in doubt. I folded my arms as if pondering while I considered the corpse. "Did he, for example, say anything in his travail?"
The countess surged to her feet and spoke for the first time, in a strangely harsh voice. "He babbled, and mostly in the Saxon tongue." She turned to bury her face in her husband's ermine collar. "My lord, this is intolerable! This insolent serf comes here and accuses you of letting your brother be murdered in your own house? Have him whipped and thrown in the moat."
In the second brief glimpse I had caught of her face, I had again seen no signs of weeping. Women were expected to display grief extravagantly, but it appeared that none of the countess's sobs for her brother-in-law had been genuine.
Her husband wrapped an arm around her. "I won't go that far, my dear, but he won't bother us more. Come, let us go and be alone with our sorrow. Matilda, you too."
The younger woman opened gray eyes whose pale lashes did not do them justice. She rose also, without sparing a glance for me or her dead uncle—assuming that she was the count's daughter. Her lids were no redder than her mother's and her face seemed cold and quite indifferent to the gruesome surroundings. In more normal circumstances I would have trouble keeping my own eyes off her. She reminded me of someone, and I could not imagine who.
Fortunately Count Richard had not noticed my impudent inspection of his daughter. "Bertrand, see that my brother's remains are appropriately tended and cered. Issue instructions for the mourning. Father Randolph, you will arrange for his internment? Hugh, show the adept and his boy out. See them on their way as soon as their mounts are fit to travel."
Everyone bowed as the baronial family departed into their chamber. The two men who had remained silent by the fireplace throughout all this now stepped forward. The younger had a soft, bookish look to him, already showing a stoop and the screwed-up eyes of someone who has to hold things close to his nose to see them properly. From the instructions the count had given him, I deduced that he was Bertrand, and probably held some such title as castle steward.
The taller and older of the two must be the one addressed as Hugh, for he had his eyes fixed on me. He made no comment as I lifted the flask from the chest, judged its weight to make sure it still contained some wine, and handed it to the surprised William.
I turned to bow to Hugh. "May God preserve your lordship."
Two very shrewd gray eyes were still watching me. "Let us go out to the hall and have a friendly gossip, Adept Durwin."