Excerpt Veil of Lies

London, 1384

The rain didn’t bother him, even though London’s rain fell thicker and harsher than country rain. Full of the city’s stench, the drizzle descended in matted wires, pricking the skin. Crispin’s leather hood took the brunt of it. The beaded water ran off his head in long rivulets and pooled at his feet. The cloak did not fare as well, and clung in heavy, wet drapery to his shivering shoulders.

Even this didn’t bother him.

What bothered him was standing in this unholy rain while a mere servant boldly appraised him as if he were a stable boy or a tradesman; looked Crispin up and down from his shabby knee-length cotehardie to his patched stockings.

The manservant’s face, square and strong, spoke of country stock rather than those hard faces etched by city living. “What do you want?” the servant asked after his prolonged assessment.

Crispin leaned forward. “What I want,” he said in a clipped tone that made the servant stiffen, “is for you to announce me to your master, the man who summoned me in the first place. The name,” he said, advancing to take possession of the threshold, “is Crispin Guest. Do not keep your master waiting.”

The servant hesitated before bowing derisively with a “right this way, my lord,” that had nothing of respect in it.

They entered a wide hall. Murals of hard-working dyers and weavers decorated both the plaster walls and rich tapestries. The friendly aroma of dried lavender and rosemary censed the cold rooms. The scent reminded Crispin of his long lost manor in Sheen. Much the same finery adorned those halls and passageways. But that had been some eight long years ago when he was still a knight.

They came to a door and the servant took a key from his belt. Once they passed through the archway, he stopped, locked the door behind him, and proceeded on.

Crispin watched and frowned. He wanted to ask but doubted he would get an answer. Instead, he simply observed the strange ritual repeated until they climbed a staircase and reached the warm solar. Why would the interview be conducted in the solar? Business discussions usually took place in the parlor. The intimate setting of the solar suited a family’s more private society. Crispin shrugged it off as another eccentricity of his wealthy host.

The servant opened the solar’s door. White plaster walls were swathed about the room with arcs of rich, blue drapery hanging mid-height by pegs. A large, carved buffet stood against one wall, reaching almost to dark ceiling beams marching in a row toward a large window, under which sat a heavy, carved table with parchments and leather-bound accounting ledgers spread across it.

The servant bowed perfunctorily. “My master will be in anon.” He turned sharply and then stopped, leaning in toward Crispin. “Don’t touch anything.” He grinned at Crispin’s narrowed eyes and left without locking the door behind him.

Crispin tugged at his tailored coat and sneered in the direction of the receding footsteps. He glanced at the lock and traced his finger around the black iron lock plate. New. And this one only bolted from the inside. Surely the solar was important enough to lock from the outside, as well.

He strolled to the fire, luxuriating in its glowing warmth. The hearth, large, almost too big for the room, stood as tall as Crispin. The mantel boasted arms of the mercer’s guild chiseled into the stone. “Merchant in cloth,” Crispin snorted. He glanced again around the fine room of silver candlesticks and expensive furnishings, and nodded shrewdly. “I am in the wrong profession.” He stared at the flagon across the room and licked his lips.

Last night he wondered at such a summons and felt a little trill in his belly. If all went well, this would surely be the richest client of his four-year career, and he needed that fee. The rent was overdue again and he owed Gilbert and Eleanor Langton a lengthy tavern bill as well. Where did the money go? Funny how it had never occurred to him how hard it was to make a living until he had to do it himself.

The door burst open and Crispin instinctively came to attention and faced his wealthy host. The man strode in, his shoulders almost as wide as the doorway. He took command of the space as a general takes command of the field, locking his eyes on Crispin before sweeping his gaze warily around the room. Crispin smiled in spite of himself. There was little doubt in Crispin’s mind that such a man was used to barking orders and having them immediately obeyed. It was something Crispin appreciated. Something he had enjoyed himself in years gone by. But this man, this prosperous merchant, was not destined to take his place on any battlefield. His arena was commerce and his soldiers his bolts of cloth.

Crispin looked him over as well, trying to assess the man beneath the confident exterior. On second examination, the man did not appear to have the muscled heft of a mason or smith, but instead the corpulence of a man of leisure. His nut brown fleshy face crinkled at the eyes and met a tidy beard touched by gray. His deep green houppelande made of rich velvet and trimmed with miniver reached to just below his knees. The foliated sleeves touched the floor, and the stiff collar stood up straight and neatly covered the back of a beefy neck. He wore two gold chains across his wide breast as well as a dagger with a gem-encrusted hilt and a decorated scabbard.

Behind him, the same manservant who met Crispin at the main door followed his master into the room and stood by the door, awaiting instructions.

The wealthy man rested his gaze on Crispin once more and left it there. “Crispin Guest?” he asked.

“At your service, my lord,” said Crispin and bowed.

The man nodded briskly before turning to his manservant. “Adam, you are dismissed. We will serve ourselves.”

The servant, Adam, threw a suspicious glare at Crispin. He hesitated a moment. But there didn’t seem to be any naysaying of this master, and the servant forced a bow before he trudged out, pulling the door shut behind him. The wealthy host strode to the closed door, grabbed the iron bolt, and locked them in.

Crispin glanced at the bolt but said nothing.

The man turned back to Crispin and hastily smiled. “I do like my privacy.”

Crispin remained silent.

“Please—” the man gestured toward a cushioned chair— “sit. Will you have wine?”

“Thank you.”

The merchant poured and handed Crispin a bowl. Crispin sat and savored the feel of the silver bowl in his hand and almost closed his eyes at the aroma of the sweet berry flavors of good Gascon wine. The man sat opposite in a larger chair. Crispin took only one sip and reluctantly set the bowl aside.

“I have heard of your discretion, Master Guest,” said the man at last. “And discretion is utmost in this instance.”

“Yes, Master. That is true in most instances.”

“Your reputation as an investigator—is it well deserved?”

“For four years I have been known as the ‘Tracker.’ I have heard no complaints about my service. My clients are well satisfied.”

“I see.” The merchant smiled with a contented nod, but then his face tightened and he fell into an agitated silence. They measured each other for a long span before the man sprang unexpectedly to his feet and nervously warmed his hands at the hearth.

“Perhaps,” Crispin suggested after another long silence, “you should start at the beginning, and then we can discover what it is you would have me do.”

The man sighed heavily and glanced once at the closed door. “My name is Nicholas Walcote.”

Crispin nodded. This he knew. The richest mercer in London, possibly in all England. Reclusive. Eccentric. It was said Walcote hadn’t been seen by his own guild since his boyhood, but his renowned trade in cloth kept his reputation intact. The man seemed always ahead of the trends, always importing just the right merchandise at the right time, cloth that the market seemed enraptured with. The man had a head for business like few others. Crispin mentally shook his head— the cloth trade was a complete mystery to him. There had once been a time when he followed fashions, but he did not have to heed courtly finery today, even if he could afford it.

The idea soured his belly as thoughts of King Richard’s court often did. His history made Walcote his better and left Crispin in rags. But not for long. Crispin measured each man these days by the amount of gold they were willing to part with. And by the looks of things, Nicholas Walcote could afford to part with a great deal.

Canting toward the edge of his seat, Crispin schooled his features and pulled the hem of his coat down over his thigh to cover a hole in his left stocking. “What might these discreet matters be, Master Walcote?”

When Walcote met Crispin’s gaze his face hardened. “It is my wife. I fear…I fear she is unfaithful to me.” His eyes filled with tears. Abruptly, he dropped his head into his hands and wept.

Crispin sat back and examined his nails, waiting for Walcote’s tears to subside. He waited a long time.

At last Walcote raised his head and wiped his face with large, square hands. “Forgive me.” He sniffed and rubbed his nose. “These are disturbing matters. Of course I am not certain. That is why I called for you.”

Crispin reckoned where this was heading and didn’t like it. “What is it you wish me to do?”

“Surely you have experience in these matters.”

He narrowed his eyes. “You wish me to spy on your wife?”

Walcote crossed the room and stood above his untouched wine. The frost-edged window panes added a gray wash of faint light onto the polished wooden floor. The rest of the room lay steeped in shadows or the manicured halos of candle sconces.

“It is driving me mad!” he hissed. “I must know! The business, my estates. I must know that any issue from her is mine. We have been married so briefly and I travel much on business.”

Love and jealousy were one thing, but the business of inheritance quite another. “Just so. What are your intentions if you discover an unpleasant truth?”

Walcote’s ruddy countenance deepened to red. “That, Master Guest, is my business alone.”

“I think you are mistaken. I do not care to be the cause of violence, no matter how justified.”

Walcote glared at him, and suddenly the merchant’s curled fists opened. He smiled apologetically. “Such personal matters. It is difficult to be rational. There would be words, certainly, and perhaps punitive action. But violence? No. You see, despite it all, I love my wife.”

Crispin rose, crossed to the hearth, and warmed his back against the fire. His wet mantle dripped on the floor. “I have no stomach for such business, Master Walcote. I recover lost jewelry, stolen papers, and such like. Adultery? I leave that to clerics.” He shook his head and moved to the door, but Walcote scrambled to maneuver in front of him and even spread his arms to cover the entrance.

Walcote weighed a good sixteen stone, but it was all easy-living and heavy food. Trim and fit, Crispin did not doubt that if he wished to leave, Walcote could not impede him.

“Please, Master Guest. You know I am a wealthy man. I will pay any price. I cannot tell this story again to another. I beg of you!”

“This is unpleasant and personal business, Master Walcote.” Crispin eyed his abandoned wine bowl. “In my opinion, you should talk to your wife.” He placed his hand on Walcote’s arm and squeezed, moving it easily aside. He reached for the bolt but Walcote grabbed his wrist.

“But how can I believe her answer?”

Crispin offered a smile. “She just might tell you the truth. Stranger things have happened.”

“You do not know my wife,” Walcote muttered. “I have tried, but the truth with her is different from others.”

Walcote tightened his grip on Crispin’s wrist. Crispin looked down at it. “Surely there is a servant you can send,” he told his host.

“And be the laughingstock of the servant’s hall?” He shook his head and released Crispin’s wrist. “Have you never been betrayed? Would you not have wanted someone to intervene for you? To warn you?”

Crispin gnawed on words close to his heart. Betrayed? He had been betrayed twice in his life in the worst possible ways. Once by a man he trusted with his life, and the other by the woman he intended to marry. If he had only been warned. If someone had but said—

He lowered his hand from the bolt and stared at the floor, ticking off the advantages both for and against. He stood that way for a while until a long breath escaped his lips and he pivoted to face Walcote. The man was desperate. No doubt of that. His ruddy face reddened and sweat shined on his nose and forehead. All his wealth was no surety of happiness. Crispin almost snorted at the irony.

Instead, he sighed his frustration, feeling the hollowness of the purse at his own belt. “Very well. What is it you wish me to do?”

Walcote’s words spilled out. “Watch the house. See where she goes or who appears when I am out. Report to me what you find. I shall take care of the rest.” He wiped the sweat from his upper lip. “What is your fee for such a commission?”

“Sixpence a day, plus expenses.”

“I will pay that and more. Here is a good-faith payment.” He reached into the purse at his belt and withdrew three coins. “Half a day’s wages now. More for however long it takes.”

Crispin looked at the coins in Walcote’s moist palm. Three silver disks. To refuse them meant starvation. Nothing new. He had starved before. If he accepted them, it meant creeping in shadows, little better than a voyeur. But it also might lead to better appointments, better opportunities. Perhaps even through the Walcote household itself, and a rich household it was.

With a bitter heart, his fingers scooped up the coins and dropped them into his purse.

“How shall I know your wife?” asked Crispin. “May I see her?”

“Oh no! That will never do.” Walcote went to the sideboard and opened the doors. He took a small object from a back shelf and cupped it in his hand, gazing at it. Reluctantly he handed it to Crispin. “This is a portrait of Philippa. It is the best likeness.”

Crispin examined the miniature. A young brown-eyed woman in her early twenties looked out at him. Her hair was a brassy gold and parted in the middle. Two ring braids draped over her ears. A fetching lass. And younger than Walcote, who appeared to be in his late forties. Little wonder he worries.

Crispin handed the portrait back, but the merchant shook his head. “Keep that for now. I would have you be certain.”

Crispin shrugged and stuffed the small portrait through the opening of his coat.

“I want you to begin tonight,” said Walcote distractedly. “And tell me whatever you discover as soon as possible.”

“Let us hope your worries are for nought.”

“Yes.” He wrung his hands and turned his back on Crispin to face the fire. “Adam will let you out.”

#

Leaving the Walcote courtyard, Crispin could not help but look back over his shoulder at the grand stone structure.

He passed through the gatehouse and acknowledged the porter inside with only a curt nod. Pulling his leather hood up he gathered his cloak about him. The autumn sky hung gray and sullen. He felt grateful the rain had stopped but his breath still fogged his face.

If Walcote wanted him to start tonight then now seemed as good a time as any. He walked across the street to warm himself over a shopkeeper’s brazier and nodded to a man already standing there. The man gestured toward the house. “Been looking for a job?” A thick-as-fog Southwark accent, but his manner rubbed a little too feminine for Crispin’s tastes.

Crispin gave a brief smile. “Yes. Do you know them?”

“Aye. Me cousin used to work for them.”

“Used to?”

“Aye. He says they’re a curious lot. I just girded me courage to ask for work there m’self, even though me cousin Harry warned me not to. A man can’t be too particular when he needs to earn a living.” He was a thin man with a hollowed face, pale hair, a hawk nose, and watery blue eyes. The man pulled his hood down to his brows with long fingers, and stiffly clutched the material closed below his chin.

“And the outcome?”

“I talked to the mistress of the house. She’s a stern one, she is. I don’t know what she thought. I’m to return on the morrow.”

Crispin said nothing. He glanced back at the house. Its proud exterior slowly disappeared behind an encroaching mist, leaving only a hazy gray rectangle with darker rectangles for windows.

The man measured Crispin’s shabby rust-colored coat, patched stockings, and worn boots. “Did they hire you?”

Crispin shivered and drew closer to the flames. He shook his head.

“Gluttonous sot,” muttered the man. “Walcote has more money than Solomon. You can’t take your riches into heaven!” he said to the house, fist raised. He lowered his hand and swiped at the air. “What’s one more servant to him?” He leaned toward Crispin. “They say,” he said softly, “that he only leaves the house to travel out of the country and buy his cloth. But there’s some who say he don’t go nowhere at all. Conjures the stuff in his cellar. It’s devil’s work, that much money.”

“Some men are simply good at what they do.”

The man sniffed and wiped his fingerless glove across his nose. “Well, I ain’t good at much. What are you good at?”

Crispin grinned crookedly. “Oh, a number of things. And none of them pay me enough.”

“Ain’t that God’s truth. And times is hard, ain’t they?” The man rubbed his hands and wrapped his cloak over his chest. “I think we should both forget our troubles for now.” He put out his gloved hand. “The name’s John Hoode. Shall we share a beaker of ale?”

Crispin glanced at the silent house, each door in or out locked tight. He measured the sky. It wouldn’t be nightfall for a few hours. Didn’t trysts usually happen at night?

Maybe the man had information on the Walcotes he could use. He clasped the man’s hand and shook it once. “I will accept your kind offer.”

“Well now!” The man motioned for Crispin to follow and they walked a block to the nearest tavern.

They settled in. Crispin pushed back his hood, running his fingers through his damp, black hair. Hoode talked merrily about London and his amusing adventures as a working man. Crispin let him talk, only half-listening. He studied him with slate gray eyes, sipping slowly of his ale. He didn’t share as much about himself, saying only that he did a variety of jobs to keep food on the table.

“Tell me,” said Crispin, slipping in between the man’s chatter. “What was your impression of Madam Walcote?”

The man slurped from his beaker and frowned. “A pretty thing. Young. Steadfast.”

Crispin drank. Steadfast? Then why should Walcote suspect her?

“Thinking of getting around him and going through her, eh?” he asked Crispin. “I wouldn’t. She’s loyal to the bone. What’s good for him is good for her. Like I said. Steadfast.”

Crispin dipped his face in his cup and said little else. He wanted to look at the portrait again but that was impossible in Hoode’s presence. Perhaps he should have questioned Walcote more rigorously as to why he had his suspicions, but Crispin’s personal distaste for this kind of task got the better of him. He shook his head at it. He should know better than that.

What matter could it have been that got Walcote’s hackles up? Was there someone loitering near the house, perhaps? Or did she hire servants who were more comely in appearance than Hoode here?

#

After almost two hours of nursing a beaker of watery ale and listening to Hoode chatter about this and that, Crispin thanked the man, wished him well, and left the tavern. He sauntered down the chilly street, now black and silver under the indistinct glow of a clouded moon.

He reached the brazier across the avenue from the Walcote gatehouse where he first met Hoode, but the dead fire left only gray ashes swirling at the bottom of the iron cage.

For hours he stood in the darkness. The moon had long gone, making the night seem colder. Finally, a small figure appeared near the gatehouse. If the guard had not brought forth his torch to show her face, Crispin might not have recognized Philippa Walcote, but he saw a flash of brassy gold hair and remembered it from the miniature portrait.

She set out alone along the street, looking back over her shoulder at the house, now dark. Crispin let her get a bowshot away before he ducked his head into his hood and followed.

She walked quickly. The shadows of the narrow lane soon swallowed her slim form but Crispin’s eyes caught the movement. Distantly, he followed her through a stone archway, slick with mist and stinking of mold. Her footsteps echoed within the structure and Crispin waited until they fell away again before he ventured through. She stepped onto a street that gently curved away from the eye, like a river. Tall shops of several stories or lofts towering over one another, lined the street, shoulder to shoulder. Their frames seemed squeezed by proximity and they loured over the avenue in stiff indifference to her flight, closing off the black sky. Doors were bolted and shutters closed against the warm, golden light Crispin could just see peeking through the seams. The damp street was deserted, except for the mysterious woman and her shadow.

She stopped and looked back.

Crispin jammed himself against the wall of a stone house, its rugged surface digging painfully into his back. Barely breathing lest the cloud of breath betray him, he quested a cautious eye past his hood to watch her.

She seemed satisfied that she was alone and turned. She gathered her cloak around herself and stepped along the uneven paving stones and sometimes into the mud.

Crispin took a deep breath, allowed her to turn a corner, and hurried, keeping amid the shadows of the eaves like a rat. He slowed when he approached the corner where she had turned and he clutched the lime-washed timber, peering carefully. He saw the hem of her cloak flick as she scurried, watched her tramp across the bridge over the Fleet Ditch, and grimaced. She was making her way south toward parts of London a lone gentlewoman should not go. Crispin snorted. Foolish woman! You’ll get yourself killed. Or worse.

She trailed her hand along a wattle fence and stepped up onto a granite paving stone situated before a busy inn. She looked once back behind her before ducking inside. Crispin stopped and watched the door open to admit her. A bright rectangle of light briefly lit the dark street before the door closed again.

A few moments later a candle was lit in an upper window, its light streaming through the cracked shutter. Crispin approached and craned his neck, but the sill was too high.

He stumbled through the inn’s pitch-dark courtyard, searching for a ladder, and found one leaning against the stable door. Carefully, he carried it back to the window and laid it against the wall, just to the side of the closed shutter. He climbed the rungs—stopped with a wince when they creaked—then made it the rest of the way to the top and peered in through the shutter’s cracks.

Philippa Walcote stood facing the window. This time he could see her features clearly. She was, indeed, young and quite beautiful. Her pale skin seemed smooth, almost translucent. Her dark eyes were large under heavy lashes, though they were draped by drowsy lids. He recalled from the miniature that same pert nose and small mouth whose lips were perfectly shaped in two opposing bows. Her hair, redder than in the painting, shone with bright flashes of wheat when the firelight caught it.

Why would a rich woman go to such a low tavern? It seemed a strange place to conduct an affair, if affair it was.

She unhooked the agrafe at her throat that held the cloak in place and tossed the mantle on the bed. Her blue samite dress was decorated with embroidery along the scooped neckline and displayed both her long neck and her high and pronounced breasts, made more conspicuous by the satiny fabric with its shine and shadow.

Crispin almost felt sorry for such a pretty thing, and he wondered why, with Walcote’s many locks, he could not manage also to confine his wife.

A shadow passed over the woman, and a man stepped into view. He stood behind her and without preamble ran his hand over the back of her neck. His features were dark, with a wide unpleasant mouth and small eyes. He needed a shave and possibly a bath, for his hair hung about his face in greasy, curled locks.

Crispin watched her passive face. It reflected neither lust nor affection, and kept its steady gaze settled somewhere on the floor, lids at half mast. Not quite the expression he expected. An unusual tryst, to be sure.

The man attacked the laces on the back of her gown. He tugged, and her body jerked like a straw manikin, but she did not seem to wish to help him expedite his efforts. He growled, mauling her neck, and the only indication that she acknowledged his presence was a slight wince. The dark hand covering her creamy skin slid to the front of her gown and clawed her breast. At last, the laces opened and her gown slipped, loosened about her shoulders. His long fingers grasped the material and yanked it down. The dark gown crumpled to her waist, revealing her white shift beneath. Those large hands kept roving along her body, pinching and pulling at her. Her eyes betrayed the merest hint of impatience…or was it irritation? Those hands bunched the cloth of her shift in two fists and pulled downward. There was a sound of tearing cloth and Crispin suddenly got an eyeful of white, pink-tipped breasts.

He slipped off his rung.

God’s blood!” Arm linked around the ladder, he swung underneath it and hung for a moment, breathing hard. He rested his forehead against a damp tread and waited. Nothing. They had not heard him. No one gave the alarm. They were, no doubt, preoccupied. He shook his head. It had been too long since he had seen a woman that beautiful and in that state of undress. He cautiously pulled himself around to the front of the ladder and made his unsteady way down.

And so. Philippa Walcote was an adulteress. No doubt about it. That was a quick sixpence. Too bad it couldn’t have been drawn out for a few days for a greater fee.

Crispin returned the ladder and pushed his way into the inn. He sat by the fire with a view of the stairs and ordered wine with one silver coin newly received from Walcote. He did not relish his task in telling the merchant about the misadventures of his wife, but it must be done.

When the liquor arrived he drank a bowlful quickly. He poured himself another and quaffed that, too. The wine warmed his belly and he felt slightly better. After a quarter of an hour he saw the woman descend the stairs and stride across the crowded room.

Crispin scrambled to his feet and left the bowl to follow her. Outside, he looked up at the window and saw the candlelight extinguish, leaving the window dark through the shutters. With her tryst quickly over she hurried home.

It was much too late to go to Walcote’s now, especially with such unpleasant news. Home sounded good to him and he left the damp streets for his own bed, dreaming of ladders and open windows.

#

Come morning, he glanced at his ash-filled hearth and frowned, thinking of his empty larder and growling belly. Sixpence a day did not go as far as it once did.

Sixpence. He tried to make light of the whole affair as just another job, but failed. It wasn’t just the hiding in shadows and peering through windows like a simpering spy that vexed him. The vision of Philippa Walcote’s naked loveliness troubled him far more. He kept seeing her in his mind.

A thump in the shop below drew his thoughts away from her. It was the tinker’s family starting their day. Perhaps he’d better do the same. He got up and went to the basin to wash his face and shave. He tied the laces of his chemise, pulled on his socks, drew up and tied his stirruped leggings, and buttoned the cotehardie all the way up his neck.

Crispin reached the Walcote gatehouse within a quarter of an hour. He entered the courtyard and made the long walk across the flagged stones to the wide stairs of an arched portico made of carved granite. He pulled the bell rope and after a few moments encountered the same servant from yesterday.

“Good morrow, Adam,” said Crispin, smiling at the servant’s agitation at the use of his name. “I have come to see your master. You remember me, do you not?”

The servant returned a wan smile. “Come this way.”

The house lay in quiet that early in the morning. No sound lifted from the cold plaster and timbers but their footsteps on the wooden floor and the jangle of Adam’s keys.

They arrived at the solar, but when Adam reached for the door ring and pulled, the door remained stubbornly shut. He stared at the door dumbly for a moment before knocking. “Master Walcote,” he said, chin raised. “Master Crispin Guest is here to see you.”

They both waited for a reply, but none came. Adam glanced at Crispin before he leaned into the door again. “Master,” he said louder. “You’ve a visitor; Crispin Guest.”

They waited again. Silence.

Crispin glared at Adam. “Are you certain he’s in there?”

Adam’s look of bewilderment gave Crispin pause. Adam did not seem the bewildered sort. By his longer gown and ring of keys, Crispin assumed he was the steward and would naturally be the man who knew all goings on in this house.

“He must be,” said Adam slowly. “It locks from the inside.” He exchanged looks with Crispin. Adam raised his hand and knocked again. The polite knocks turned to pounding and then he turned a desperate expression on Crispin. “Something must be amiss.”

Crispin pushed Adam aside and did his own knocking. “Master Walcote!” Foolish to think that his knocking would have more sway over the steward’s. An uneasy sensation steeled over his heart. “Get something to break down this door. And get help. Make haste!”

Adam ran down the passageway while Crispin yanked on the door ring. He braced his foot against the wall and with both hands pulled until he was blue in the face. Nothing. His eyes traveled over the door, searching for a means in. The heavy iron hinges were beyond his abilities without tools and the door was made of thick, sturdy oak.

He turned at the sound of footsteps slapping against the floor and moved aside for two men, both with axes. “Master Walcote!” cried one of the men. They turned to Adam for permission and he gave them a desperate nod.

Standing squarely before the door, they hacked at the oak, one hitting the door while the other swung back—a rhythmic thudding of blade on wood precisely timed. The wood splintered little by little, breaking off in long staves and flying chips. Adam danced on the balls of his feet behind them, blinking from each hard blow of the ax. At last they broke through the wood above  the door ring. They stopped their swinging and one of the men reached through the tight opening to unbolt the door.

When it swung opened, Adam barked a surprised shout and froze. The two men with the axes searched past their steward and murmured prayers as they crossed themselves. Adam stumbled forward into the room.

A prickle started up Crispin’s spine, and when he peered in, his instincts were confirmed. Nicholas Walcote lay on his back on the floor, mouth agape, eyes dilated, with an irregular patch of red beneath him.