Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Templar's Cross: a snippet

Templar's Cross will be out soon. It goes to my editor next week, so the snippet is not yet edited and takes up about when the last snippet ended.

On the way out of the tavern, Law sat down next to Cormac who had his harp in his lap tuning it. “Do me a favor?”

Cormac raised an eyebrow. “Aye, if I can.”

“Go to the blindman’s tavern and ask quietly if they’ve seen someone with hair so light it is almost white.” He slipped Cormac a merk. “I dinnae have time to go there myself.”

Rain dribbled down Law’s leather cloak, and cold water soaked through the seams of his boots. He turned west on Northgate and sloshed through the gate of North Gate Port where the road became rutted dirt that sucked at his boots as he slogged toward the Whitefriars Abbey. He wasn’t sure if they had a women’s hall since it was smaller than Blackfriars, but he knew it had a men’s guest hall for Duncan had stayed there when they first arrived at Perth. It was a long trek.

The dark hills loomed before him and soon the tree branches met and mingled overhead plunging the path into shadows as though he were passing through a long dark tunnel. The day smelt of rain and mud, and the wind carried a hint of a peat fire somewhere in the distance.  

When he stepped out from under the trees the the stone monastery and its high stone spire stood before him, surrounded by wooden buildings, guest houses, barns and fields of crops and cattle. Between knee-high rows of kale, two friars in brown robes with leather girdles with hoes over their shoulders trudged toward through the mist. There should have been a porter at the gate, but no one answered when he tugged on the bell.

He pushed open the gate and walked to the front door of the church, stamped the mud from his feet, and shook out his cloak. As he had hoped, bells for None, the midafternoon prayers, had not yet rung. Inside, a heavily veiled woman knelt before a statue of the Virgin Mary and another at the altar rail muttered a despairing prayer interspersed with sobs. A gray-haired, tonsured lay brother was polishing a silver reliquary.  Law cleared his throat and the friar looked up at him, allowing Law to catch his eye. The man, hands tucked into his sleeves, made his way to the nave where Law waited.

“Can I help you, my son?” he asked.

“Brother,” Law said with a nod of his head, “Mayhap. I recently returned from the war in France and seek to locate an old friend. I think he may bide in your guesthouse.”

The friar shook his head. “It isn’t the season for pilgrims, so we haven’t any guests with us the now.”

“He’s middling height and his yellow hair is so light it is almost white. Has anyone like that been here in the past weeks?” At the friar’s raised eyebrows, Law explained, “Mayhap I waste my time seeking him, but I’ve few friends left since—” He swallowed. “I was at the Battle of Verneuil, you see. So I am eager to find my one friend.” He knew putting one truth about his past in a tangle of lies made Law would make the story more believable.

The friar quickly crossed himself. “It was a sad day when we heard that news. The king ordered prayers for all lost there, especially the earls. I wish I could help, but no one like that has stayed in our guesthouse.”

“You are certain you’ve not seen anyone of that description?”

Rocking backward and forward on his feet, the friar stared into the distance. “Aye,” he said at thoughtfully, “I did see a stranger similar to what you mentioned not long past, two days ago it was. He was speaking to another man when I was carrying alms to the leper house. But he never abided here, so I fear it is no help to you.”

“No, brother, learning he has been in Perth and may yet be here does indeed help me.”

A bell began to toll above them. “I need to go,” the friar said hastily. “But I wish you well in finding your friend.”

Law pulled his cloak around himself when he went out into the dusk, but the rain had finally stopped. He picked his way along the path, back through the port into the dank streets of the burgh. Blackfriars was on the far north side of the city, and he preferred it was full dark when he met Duncan so he took his time as he walked.

A fog, thin and clammy, blurred the buildings as he passed. The crisp scent of autumn was quickly overlaid with the stench of blood and offal from slaughtering that was done in this part of Perth. His throat closed and he choked on the smell. Shutters were banging closed as he passed the tightly clustered buildings with jetties that thrust out above the street turning it into little more than a warren.  

He passed shadowy shops as the sun sank below the high city walls, shops with bloody beef carcasses stood next to poulterers where dark, motionless lines of birds hung, blighted, as far as he could see into their shadowy depths. The last of sunset’s light faded into black night.

In an open doorway a burly man stood silhouetted in lamplight, a pig’s carcass over his shoulder dripping gore down his apron. “Beannachd leat,” he called out to Law congenially.

Law had never had Gaelic but even he knew a civil good night so he replied, “Mar sin leat,” with a brisk wave.

Blackfriars was out of Perth and into a suburb at the far end of past the Red Brig Port. The street narrowed once through the port and his boots squelched in icy muddy of the roadway. A wing moaned through the pines setting branches to scraping and groaning. A fragment of moon slithered from behind clouds only to hide again. He grunted when he stumbled in a pothole.

Finally, he heard a mournful chant of vespers prayers roll from the monastery: Deus, in adiutorium meum intende. Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina. O Lord, make haste to aid me indeed, Law thought, and snorted softly at his foolishness. If he needed help he’d do better to depend upon his good sword arm for God, if the priests weren’t lying about there being one, did not seem eager to aid him.

Behind the monastery’s high stone walls, beams of light from the windows of the monastery broke the thick darkness or Law might have missed the alley were he was to meet Duncan. Fences on both sides formed a dark passageway.  He peered in and took a step into the narrow path. He didn’t want to call out but apparently Duncan had hidden himself well. Or perhaps he’d given up and gone back to the room he rented above a bakster. The faint chanting from the monastery ceased.

“Duncan, where in Hades are you?” Law called softly.

Running his hand along the damp wooden fence, Law walked into the dark pathway. A blackbird burst out of hiding almost at his feet with a clatter of feathers and a harsh squawk. The waving, pewter moonlight seeped through the clouds to make strange passing shapes on the ground over a dark lump against the dyer’s fence. Then through a break in the clouds a passing gleam of the moonlight reflected in wide-open eyes. The stench of blood and urine and shit mixed with hit Law’s nostrils. He stood frozen, hand on his hilt and then turned in a slow circle searching the shadows. Nothing moved, so he squatted beside the body...

Friday, October 17, 2014

Another snippet from my upcoming historical mystery

To be titled The Templar's Cross this is at an assize the day after the discovery of two dead bodies and Law Cullen, my main character, has been called to testify. Please keep in mind, it is unedited and a first draft:

Sir William’s scowl deepened. “Those clothes would have been worth coin and in the dark at least his cloak would have been easily taken.” He looked at the serjeant. “There is surely no possibility he would have been killed before nightfall.”

The serjeant, who Law was beginning to think might have at least a few more brains than he looked like, shook his head. “Someone would have seen him. It’s likely the stiffness would have started to pass had he been dead sae long.”

The assizer at the front of the group demanded, looking at Law, “You dinnae ken this one? You’re sure of it?”

“I’m sure of it. He does not look like a Scot to me. I never saw a Scot with that color hair.” He chewed his lower lip as he decided how much he should tell as Sir William grunted in agreement. “Mayhap it would be worth asking at the inns and monastery guest houses if they’ve had a guest by his description. There cannae be very many such hereabout.”

 “Yet you have been out of Scotland so you could have met such.”

“He could be English,” one of the assizers with the heavy shoulders of a master of the smith’s guild said.

Law made his face blank with boredom. “No. I never saw this one there, and I’d never take him for a knight or soldier, not even a cleric in those clothes.” Law thrust his chin at the stack of velvet at the foot of the table. “It seems to me the first thing is to find out if anyone has seen him about Perth. Someone must have.”

“Guesses achieve nothing,” Sir William said. “Does anyone have any knowledge to put forward?” When there was a nervous silence to his question, he turned his head to the assize. “Do any of you have any questions to put?”

“When did you agree to tryst for a drink with that one?” The hammersmith pointed toward Duncan. “Did anyone see the two of you to say you were not quarreling?”

“He came up to my room above Cullen’s inn before the none bell. I suppose Wulle Cullen might be able to tell you…?”

The innkeeper crossed his arms and nodded thoughtfully. “Aye, the man had been in my inn a handful of times. I cannae say I kent his name. I recall that he went up to yon Sir Law’s room yesterday and it might have been aboot the time he said. When the man came down he had a bowl of my goodwoman’s broth and left. If anything, he seemed more cheerful than before.”

“There is still fighting in France. Would it not have been easier to find a new lord there?” the same man asked.

Law examined the man’s face and wondered what answer would satisfy him. After a moment, he settled on the truth. “I followed my lord there. After he was killed, I had no desire to follow a Frenchman. And...it was time to come home.”

The man nodded, and when Sir William asked there were no more questions. Sir William took a seat in the large chair on the dais that could serve as a throne if the king were in attendance. The serjeant along with one of his men escorted the assizers out of their encloser through a rear door to a jury chamber.

Wulle Cullen wove his way through the crowd to Law. Shrugging, Cormac sauntered in the innkeeper’s wake. He shook his head. “Not oft we see two murders in one day.”

Law grunted. “I suppose not.”

Cormac muttered, “Even less often the murderer doesn’t dump the body in the Tay.”

“Wheest, Cormac, mind your place” Wulle scolded and got a glare for his trouble. “I wonder if they will take long. You’d think they wouldn’t have much to consider.”

“I suppose they must consider if it was I who did the deed.” He breathed a soft laugh through his nose. “I’ve killed more than a few in battles, but I’m no murderer.”

“Och, with so many of our men the fighting with the English in France, more than a few have done that.” The innkeeper slapped Law’s shoulder. “This testifying is thirsty work. I’ll draw you a mug of ale when we bide at home and no charge to you.”

“That’s kind of you,” Law said.

A thin, undersized man, his dark, stringy hair hanging over his small eyes in greasy locks, sidled close.

“Get away,” Wulle barked.

As Law stared after him, the man darted back into the onlookers.  “Who was that?” he asked the other two men.

Cormac shrugged. “What? No ale for me? You’re a tight-fisted bugger, Wulle.”

Ignoring the minstrel, Wulle said, “Dave Tailor, he’s called. Mayhap he tailors his clothes from the rats he catches.” Wulle snickered but his face straightened as he pointed at a door that a guard had pulled open. “Here comes the assize. I thought t’would not take them long.”

The fifteen men of the assize filed through the door held open by the serjeant and proceeded solemnly to the enclosure. A buzz of speculation went through the chamber. Sir William roused himself from dozing and stood. Once the serjeant climbed the steps to the dias and shouted for silence. Sir William briefly reminded the assize of the verdicts they were expected to bring and asked who would speak for them.

The burly hammersmith who had questions Law took a step forward. “I shall, my lord. Androu Gray, master smith.”

“And what has the assize found on the first death, Androu?”

 “We’re agreed that it is Duncan Kintour, and the death was foul murder by stabbing.”

“Very good. And do you agree to who saw to the death?”

“No, on that we could not. Two thought that it was yon Sir Law but the rest of us held that there was no way to ken who had done the deed.”

A hubbub started up and everyone in the room seemed to turn to mutter about the verdict. Law dropped a hand onto his hilt but most of the crowd seemed to agree.

The serjeant shouted for order. It took several shouts but after a few minutes the din quieted. 

“Keep silent or I’ll clear the room except for the assize,” Sir William said. “Now, Androu, what is the verdict on the second death?”

“We do not ken who is he, but most of us think he is an Englishman. Some have whitish hair like thon. It is obvious how he died, by murder from having his throat slit.” The smith frowned toward the draped corpse. “But it is a different kind of stroke. We thought it was most likely not the same hand that struck the blow.”