Maureen Ash: Murder for Christ's Mass

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Maureen Ash Murder for Christ's Mass
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    Murder for Christ's Mass
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    Исторический детектив / на английском языке
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    Английский
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Maureen Ash


Murder for Christ's Mass

One

Lincoln December 21, 1201


The stone quarry lay still and silent under the maelstrom of wind and raging clouds scudding in the skies above. The early darkness of a winter evening had already fallen and the deep pit was shrouded in gloom. At intermittent moments, the racing clouds parted for an instant and allowed the beams of a full moon to dance a chiaroscuro of flickering shadows across the steep walls of stone. The night air was cold, its intensity heightened by a bitter wind blowing from the northeast. To the man who stood at the top of the cliff face overlooking the quarry, it was an eerie scene and made him apprehensive. In the daytime, when quarrymen were at work cutting and hauling blocks of stone, the huge pit would be full of activity, but now, in the darkness, it was a lonely place. Although he was only a few hundred yards from the walls of Lincoln town, it seemed as though he were stranded in a desolate spot far from the comforting presence of civilization. He started suddenly as the distant cry of a wolf was borne to him on the gusting wind. Wrapping his cloak closer about him, he damned the person he expected to meet for being late. It must be nearly an hour past the time agreed for their appointment.

A short distance from where he stood was a small shack. It was only large enough to contain a few small tools and some coils of rope but, nonetheless, the door was fastened with a stout lock. A few flakes of wind-driven snow blew onto the man’s cheeks, stinging his exposed flesh like needles. If he was going to wait any longer, he needed to find shelter, and the shack was the only place available. Even if he could not break the lock to gain entry, there might be some relief from the wind on the leeward side of the walls.

Deciding he would wait just a few more minutes, he turned to make his way towards the shed when he thought he saw a movement on the narrow track leading from the main road to the cliff top. The shifting shadows caused by the passage of the clouds made it difficult to be sure, and he stopped and stared in that direction, shielding his eyes from the wind by cupping his hands on either side of his face. After a few moments, he decided he was mistaken. Patting the leather sack tied to his belt to make sure it was still securely in place, he resumed his steps towards the shed.

He had almost reached the small building when he was hit from behind, a heavy clout that took his breath away and brought him to his knees. Instinctively he tried to roll away but was too slow, and again a crushing blow descended on his skull, this time on the side of his head. As he struggled to regain his reeling senses, a booted foot pushed him onto his back and there was the brief glimmer of a knife arcing towards his chest. The blade took him directly in the heart. He was dead within seconds.

The attacker knelt beside his victim, feeling within the folds of the dead man’s clothing for the pouch he carried. The murderer had difficulty removing it and used his knife to cut it free, not noticing that his efforts had loosened the neck of the sack slightly, and one of the coins it contained spilled out onto the ground. Once the pouch was safely stowed inside his tunic, he dragged the corpse to the edge of the cliff and shoved it over. The body fell with silent quickness and landed with a barely perceptible thud beside an enormous limestone block. As the killer crept back behind the shack, the wind increased in strength. Soon it would bring more snow, the flakes driving almost sideways in the vanguard of the incoming storm. By the time the midnight hour arrived, a mantle of white would cover the floor of the quarry and render the body of the dead man indistinguishable from the other snow-covered mounds of stone.

Two

Lincoln December 25, 1201


The snowstorm lasted one night and a day. the last errant flake fluttered down from a leaden-coloured sky, it left the high knoll on which the castle and cathedral stood and the streets of the town on the hillside below covered in a deep blanket of snow. On the heels of the storm the temperature rose sharply and within a few hours rain began to fall, gently at first, then in a torrential downpour that turned the snow into a mire of slush. As the hours passed, the slush began to melt and rivulets of water gushed down the hill towards the banks of the Witham River. It was not until late in the afternoon on the eve of Christ’s Mass that the sky finally ceased its outpouring of moisture.

At midnight, the townspeople flocked to the cathedral for the first Mass of this auspicious day, the Angel’s Mass, and a few hours later, at dawn, to the second service, the Shepherd’s Mass, determinedly slogging their way through huge puddles of water as they trekked up the hill to the grounds of the Minster. By the time the dawn service was over, an uncertain winter sun had appeared and everyone hoped it would continue to shine for the third and last Mass of the day, the Divine Word. Whatever the weather held in store, all were resolved it would not spoil their enjoyment of the holy day or anticipation of the festive evening meal.

Among the crowd of people leaving the cathedral after the Shepherd’s Mass was Bascot de Marins, a Templar knight temporarily staying in Lincoln. Over the socket of his missing right eye he wore a black leather patch, and there were premature strands of grey in his dark hair and beard. By his side trotted his mute servant, Gianni, a boy about thirteen years of age. Both of them were imbued with a sense of well-being after hearing the hymns of praise honouring the Christ child and, as they walked across the grounds of the Minster in the direction of the castle, Bascot reached in the scrip at his belt and took out a couple of candi, boiled lumps of sugar made from sweet canes in the Holy Land and imported into England by the Templar Order. Tossing one to Gianni, he suppressed a chuckle at the boy’s expression of delight as he caught the sweet and popped it in his mouth. In the two years they had known each other, the Templar had become as fond of the lad as if he were his own true son. Soon, in the spring, Bascot would be leaving Lincoln to rejoin the ranks of the Order, and it saddened him to think it might be years, if ever, before he saw Gianni again. He was determined to spend as much time as possible with the boy over the holy days of Christ’s Mass. The pair munched contentedly on the candi as they left the Minster grounds and, crossing the broad highway of Ermine Street, entered the bail of Lincoln castle.

Ahead of them, a large complement of household servants were hurrying from attendance at the dawn service towards the steps that led up to the keep, all intent on taking up the various duties involved in the preparation of the sumptuous evening feast. An extra effort was to be made this year, for Nicolaa de la Haye, the castellan of the castle, and her husband, Gerard Camville, the sheriff of Lincoln, were entertaining guests who had arrived just before the onset of the snowstorm. Gilbert Bassett, lord of Drayton in Oxfordshire, had brought his wife and family to Lincoln to share the holy days and, on the feast of Epiphany, to attend the betrothal of his eldest daughter, Eustachia, to Gerard and Nicolaa’s only son and heir, Richard. The match was considered to be most suitable by all the parties involved, for not only was Eustachia possessed of a considerable dower; her father was an old and trusted friend of the sheriff. Lady Nicolaa intended to ensure the Bassetts’ stay in Lincoln castle was both comfortable and entertaining.

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