Corbett leaned forward and glanced down the table. Ranulf was sitting on Lady Hawisa's left. The Principal Clerk in the Chancery of the Green Wax had immediately shown a deep liking for her. Corbett silently prayed that Scrope did not take offence at Ranulf's open admiration and consequent flirtation with his wife. He caught the eye of Father Thomas, smiled and nodded. He had met the priest during the King's campaign in Wales. Father Thomas had a hard, lined face under thinning grey hair, a frugal man dressed in a simple brown robe, his bleak austerity offset by gentle eyes. During their meeting before the banquet, Corbett had noticed how the priest barely sipped at his wine, being more concerned with threading the ave beads around his bony knuckles. Next to him was a bird of different character: Master Claypole the mayor, lean and tense like a ferret, with close-set eyes, a nose sharp as a quill, his lower lip jutting out as if ready for any argument. Corbett felt his elbow brushed and turned to a smiling Dame Marguerite, Lady Abbess of St Frideswide, small, petite
and pretty-faced. He found it almost impossible to believe that this elegant abbess, her face framed by a snow-white wimple under a black veil, was Lord Scrope's blood sister. She played with the gold ring on one of her fingers, emblazoned with what looked like a deer, whilst beating gently on the tablecloth, thoroughly enjoying the music.
âBut I am hungry,' she leaned forward grinning impishly, âwhilst my chaplain is ready to eat his own knuckles.'
Corbett leaned forward and nodded at Master Benedict, who, throughout the music, had been staring at Corbett, eyes all anxious, fingers to his lips. Corbett glanced away to hide his own annoyance. Benedict Le Sanglier was an ambitious priest, a Gascon bearing letters from the Archbishop of Bordeaux. He had, during their meeting before dinner, attempted to show Corbett these as well as declare how desirous he was of securing a benefice at court.
âI mean,' he pleaded, pulling a pious expression, âI want to give good service, I am most skilled as a clerk.' Westminster, Corbett ruefully conceded, was full of such men clamouring for promotion. Benedict Le Sanglier was from the English-held province of Gascony; now in England, he was determined to secure advancement through the royal service into a host of benefices. Corbett had eventually been rescued by Ranulf, who whispered how the abbess' chaplain, with his clear eyes, smooth shaved face and mop of neatly cut blond hair, was truly a sheep in wolf's clothing.
Corbett sipped the sweet wine, then hastily put his goblet down as the music ended. Brother Gratian abruptly rose to sing grace in a high nasal tone. After the benediction, the trumpeters in the minstrel gallery blew long, sharp blasts as the cooks processed in
carrying the main dishes, venison, pork, quail and fish all served in piquant sauces, whilst servants hurried along the dais with jugs of the richest claret. A true feast. Corbett ate well but drank sparingly, appreciating that the real business would begin once the banquet ended. He became involved in courteous but bland conversation with Scrope and Dame Marguerite about the doings of the court, the politics of Westminster, the Scottish threat, the weather and the urgent need for the King to implement his Statute of Highways. Frumentaries and pastries were served. Tumblers, acrobats, jesters and buffoons did their whirling jigs. Scrope's troubadour, who rejoiced in the name of Shilling, led the ale minstrels and gleemen in singing an old Crusader hymn, which Corbett thoroughly enjoyed.
The meal then ended. Those dining beneath the salt around tables ranged along the hall, Chanson included, were left to their feasting whilst Lord Scrope and his guests on the dais adjourned to the solar on the floor above. This was a comfortable timber-rafted room, the area around the great hearth partitioned off by screens decorated with scenes from the life of King Arthur. Chairs and stools had been placed before the roaring fire; tables in between these bore goblets and jugs of wine and ale. Scrope and Lady Hawisa took the central chairs, gesturing at the others to take the same seating arrangement as at the banquet. At first Corbett was surprised that all had been invited, but then concluded that Lord Oliver must view his other guests as allies and supporters. Once the servants had withdrawn, Scrope, his sweaty face wreathed in a false smile, gestured at Corbett.
âSir Hugh, you are most welcome. I understand his grace has
sent you to deal with certain matters.' He played with the ring on the little finger of his left hand.
âThe Sanguis Christi.' Corbett decided the time for courtesy was over.
âIt will be handed over as promised.'
âAnd the assassin's dagger?'
âTo me?' Corbett demanded.
âThe assassin's dagger is truly the King's,' Scrope agreed.
âStolen by felons.'
âApprehended by Lord Oliver,' Master Claypole intervened âas well as by the vigilance of the King's loyal subjects in Mistleham.'
âYes, yes,' Corbett soothed. âThe felon Le Riche tried to sell the item to a goldsmith?'
âNamely me.' Claypole smirked. âI too am a member of that guild. I lured the thief to the guildhall, where Lord Oliver's men were waiting to arrest him.'
âAnd the dagger is of rolled gold?' Ranulf asked innocently. He and Corbett had rehearsed these questions on their journey here.
âAh, no.' Claypole looked confused.
âSo why sell it to a goldsmith?' Corbett intervened. âI mean, he had no other items taken from the crypt?'
âOf course not!' Scrope snapped. âCorbett, what are you saying? Le Riche attempted to sell a dagger as something precious. He was seized, tried and hanged. I understand that other members of the gang did similar business in different parts of the kingdom.'
âI was there,' Brother Gratian broke in.
âWere you really?' Ranulf asked.
âI shrived the prisoner,' the Dominican replied.
âSo,' Corbett leaned back in his chair, âLe Riche was apprehended in the guildhall, he was disarmed and searched, the dagger was found upon him and he was detained?'
âIn the dungeons beneath the guildhall,' Claypole snapped.
âOn the morrow he was tried before me and Master Claypole,' Lord Scrope declared. He gestured at Benedict Le Sanglier.
âI was a witness. It was all done according to the law,' the chaplain spluttered. âAn evil man, Sir Hugh! Le Riche had been caught red-handed, a traitor â¦'
âI do have the power of noose and tumbril in these parts,' Lord Oliver trumpeted. âYou know that, Sir Hugh! Le Riche was a self-confessed traitor, a felon caught red-handed, publicly proscribed by the Crown, which had dispatched letters to me and the sheriff at Colchester. In accordance with those instructions I seized Le Riche, tried him, then hanged him.'
âYou could have held him over for further questioning.'
Scrope made a dismissive gesture. âA petty felon,' he declared, âwho fled with an item stolen from the royal treasury. He could say nothing else, provide no information, except plead for mercy. I showed him that mercy. Brother Gratian shrived him, I gave him wine and food, a comfortable cell.' Scrope shrugged. âAnd then I hanged him.'
âThat is true,' Dame Marguerite intervened, her face all smiling. âMaster Benedict here was an official witness at the execution.'
âAnd?' Corbett turned to the abbess' chaplain.
âHe seemed wandering in his wits,' Master Benedict declared. âHe sprawled in the execution cart, isn't that true, Brother Gratian? Father Thomas, you too were there.'
âA poor unfortunate,' the parish priest replied, âlong-haired and
bearded, poorly clothed. He could hardly stand to climb the ladder. The town's hangman had to hold him.'
âAnd all he carried when arrested was the assassin's dagger stolen from Westminster?' Corbett insisted.
âSir Hugh,' Lady Hawisa intervened, her pretty face all concerned, âwhat are you alleging? I was in Mistleham with my husband when Mayor Claypole sent a scurrier with the news that Le Riche was detained.'
âAre you,' the mayor declared, âimplying that Le Riche carried more than a dagger? If he did, we certainly did not see it!'
âWhen was Le Riche caught and hanged?'
âIn November, around the Feast of St Cecilia.'
âYet the robbery at the abbey took place last April. Didn't you ask the felon where he'd been for the last seven months?'
âYes, in hiding.'
Corbett nodded as if this satisfied him, though in truth it certainly did not. Suspicions pricked his mind, but he thought it would be best to leave the matter for a while. He sensed the mood was changing, but there again, it always did once the pleasantries and courtesies were over, the outer skin of the onion, as Ranulf once described it, peeled off. Now they were to probe what lay beneath.
âSo the Sanguis Christi, you will hand it over?'
âI have said I will â¦'
âTo me, the King's envoy?'
âSir Hugh,' Scrope crossed his legs and smiled, his lips belying the anger blazing in his eyes, âI am no rebel, traitor or thief suing for terms. I shall give the King, as I solemnly promised him, the precious relic. I shall do so very soon. Brother Gratian here will
return to Westminster. He will hand over the Sanguis Christi. He will be my envoy.'
Corbett ignored Ranulf's hiss of disapproval and stared into the fire. He recalled what he and Maeve had discussed in their solar at the Manor of Leighton, how an individual being was more than flesh and blood, but spirit, the invisible contained within the visible. So it was here: bland stories and easy lies concealed devilish trickery.
âAnd the Free Brethren of the Holy Spirit?' Corbett glimpsed the abrupt shift in Scrope's eyes and sensed he was walking into a trap. âFourteen people,' he continued remorselessly, âbutchered. I believe they were unarmed and not accused of any crime; no law or authority was invoked.' He let his voice trail off. He sensed he was only helping Scrope, who now sat clearly enjoying himself, chewing the corner of his mouth. Gratian also sat up, preening like a cat. Corbett became acutely aware that the more he said, the deeper the trap would become. Scrope had prepared carefully for this confrontation.
âDo continue, please.' The manor lord smiled. âWhat is it, Sir Hugh? Do you want me to go to Westminster and plead before Staunton and Hengham at King's Bench?'
âThat could be arranged,' Corbett replied quietly. âI could swear out the writ now; Ranulf would draft it for sealing.'
Scrope turned and shouted at the door. The captain of his guard tumbled through, a tough-looking soldier with balding head and popping blue eyes in a wine-flushed face.
âBring out the arrow chest, Robert, the one taken from Mordern.'
The fellow bowed and hurried away.
âNow,' Scrope turned and pointed a finger at Corbett, âlisten, Sir Hugh. The Free Brethren of the Holy Spirit were French, one of those many groups who wander the face of God's earth preaching the freedom of religion. Their name is legion. They accept what they like of Holy Mother Church's teaching, then peddle their own theories. Some are harmless enough, others are highly dangerous, a real threat to the soul, emissaries of the Lord Satan.'
Corbett held his peace.
âThe Free Brethren arrived here at the beginning of Lent last year. Fourteen in all, they gave themselves biblical names. Their leaders, Adam and Eve, were presentable enough but took to lying like a bird to flying; golden-haired and golden-mouthed, they were most persuasive. I allowed them to settle in the village of Mordern. They offered labour in return for food.'
âThey executed a fine painting in my church, Sir Hugh, finished around the Feast of St Augustine. Vividly beautiful, isn't it?'
A murmur of approval greeted Father Thomas' words; this faded at a knock on the door. The two retainers brought in a battered arrow chest. They placed this in front of Lord Scrope, bowed and withdrew. The manor lord, with a flourish of triumph, kicked back the jutting lid with the toe of his boot. Corbett nodded at Ranulf, who crouched down and began to lift out the contents: two longbows, the yew still gleaming; two quivers of long ash arrows, iron-tipped, with grey goose feathers; two Brabantine crossbows; the same number of battle axes; daggers and Welsh stabbing swords, short and squat with wicked-looking points and serrated edges. Corbett picked up a bow about a man's height in length. It was fashioned completely out of yew with a firm cord
grip and stringed with powerful twine. He twanged this, pulling it back slightly as he repressed his own nightmares about the bloody havoc these longbows had wreaked during the King's campaign in Wales: men pierced through by arrows from such powerful weapons, deadly enough to bring down a mailed warhorse and its armoured rider. A master bowman could loose ten shafts in the space of a few heartbeats. He put the weapon down and, with his foot, sifted amongst the others.
âThey're new,' he murmured, âbut according to all the evidence, they were penniless. Moreover, they landed at Dover â¦'