Thursday 19 December 2013

The Sheriff meets a murdered man - extract from King's Chalice

The sheriff arrived with his own retinue and strode quickly into the church leaving stable staff to deal with his horses. The priest was bobbing obsequiously, moving rapidly backwards to clear a way through the crowd until his sandal caught on an uneven cobble and he toppled over. The crowd laughed as his bare white legs were exposed, their amusement over this trifling incident serving to reduce the tension which had been building since Udric had been accused of murder. Many of them liked him and were taking Prince Aethelstan’s side against his brother. Edwin was quick to notice their partiality and ordered those who did not move out of his way fast enough to make way for their betters. Ill concealed scowls met his demands there being sufficient numbers that he could not accuse any one of them of contempt.
“My lord Sheriff!” greeted Edwin pompously, determined to take precedence in the matter. “The murderer is already taken. He is under guard.”
The Sheriff responded with a nod and pulled aside the sheet which now covered the murdered man. Pulling the man’s head from side to side, he examined the purple bruises on either side of his Adam’s apple. The well formed lips were drawn back in a grotesque parody of a smile.
Prince Aethelstan watched the law man inspect the cadaver, appreciating the thorough but quick movements as the body was turned this way and that.
 “Prepare the body for burial,” ordered the sheriff brusquely glancing at the monks who had stepped back to give him room. “Wrap the shroud well and leave it guarded.”
The monks moved forward to complete their tasks without a word being said as they wrapped the corpse from head to toe in fine wool shrouding. The church emptied, men and women returning to their work now that the sky was now truly lightened. The carts still trundled through the high gates, bleating animals headed for the King’s slaughter house and the smell of new bread wafted over the courtyard from the open kitchen door.
Prince Aethelstan strode briskly up the staircase his forehead puckered with concern. He knew that the Sheriff would question Udric and prayed that the man was as impartial as he was rumoured to be.
“Trust this to happen when father is not here. He would have seen through Edwin’s spiteful tricks, although I cannot at the moment see how it was done. There is no way my father will sanction trial by combat, not with his precious son, but …”  As the Prince pushed the curtain of his room aside a glimmer of an idea was beginning to form. At the moment it was a mere possibility at the fringe of his conscious thought. He sipped from the night ale and spat it out onto the rushes.
“Ugh! Yes! Why did my brother need food or drink last night. The servants always put more than enough in case any of us wake and need refreshment. Edwin had no need to send a servant for food.” Now he was beaming and caught sight of his full blooded grin in the small bronze looking glass, a prized possession.
“Ha! Not so clever brother. And, come to think of it, whose knife was it. It was not Udric’s for his is here beside the bed. Where’s the sheriff?”
Guards spilled into his room when his voice was raised. They followed him to the guardroom where the sheriff and the captain were talking quietly.
“My lord Sheriff, forgive my interference.”
The Sheriff and the Captain of the guard had both risen to their feet when Prince Aethelstan barged into the small room. Their breastplates creaked and smelt of new grease with every movement in the confined space.
“Lord Prince” muttered the Sheriff as he bowed quickly.
“My brother accuses Udric. It is true they fought years ago and Prince Edwin’s throat was similarly marked. Father ruled that Edwin had provoked Udric so he was not punished as my brother thought he should have been. I believe he still harbours a grudge and feels that Udric should not be my friend and body-servant. Udric sleeps in my chamber and as far as I know never left it until the alarm bell was sounded. What puzzles me is, well, two things.
Looking down at his hands the prince held up a forefinger and paused before resuming his spoken thoughts. He looked up expectantly at the faces of the two men. The sheriff was regarding him seriously while the Captain’s face showed a hint of a smile as if he admired the prince in his effort to clear Udric of this awful deed.
“Firstly, who knows the man? He wears my brother’s colours but I do not recognize him. Secondly, and now I am guessing! Was the man killed elsewhere and then wrapped in my brother’s cloak and put under the staircase?”
The Sheriff was nodding. The prince was only voicing his own suspicions but he had his work to do and liked to follow his own procedure. “Lord, some of what you say has occurred to me. There are several matters which need to be explained. I will question the man Udric shortly. Unfortunately if both of you slept well then neither of you can vouch for the other during the hours of darkness. Let me carry out my own investigation. It will be thorough and I will hear all sides in this tragic matter. Does the man have kin? A wife? Does he sleep close to Prince Edwin? All I know is that he is a servant in his household. When I know more then a trial can take place, if it is warranted. For now, you must let me perform my duty. The captain here has Udric under guard and we will go and see him. In view of your interest you cannot be there and neither can your brother as he is the accuser.”
The Sheriff bowed to Aethelstan and he took the hint and left the guardroom. With every step the questions and possible answer tumbled randomly through his thoughts. He returned to the hall unaware of the greetings from people he passed.

from "The King's CHalice" by Janet K.L. Seal
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