Paul Doherty: A haunt of murder

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Paul Doherty A haunt of murder
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    A haunt of murder
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Paul Doherty


A haunt of murder


The Prologue

The great raven, hooded and cowled like a monk, its broad ruff of feathers up behind its head, perched on the rotting post and croaked to the gathering night. Above it, crows, mournful in their cries, circled the fields, still searching for food before the sun dipped into the west. The pilgrims, weary and tired, now had no thought about the blessed shrine of St Thomas a Becket or praying before his consecrated bones. They were saddle-sore and weary with aching backs, chapped thighs, wrists tense from clasping reins. Sir Godfrey Evesden had ridden out and come back sombre-faced: once again they were lost!

The pilgrims turned and glared at the person responsible. The miller, drunk in the saddle, clasped his bagpipes like a mother would a child. The only sign that he was even conscious was the occasional burp or smacking of his lips. On either side the colic-faced reeve and the pimple-scarred summoner held him straight in the saddle. Sir Godfrey Evesden rode up. He was not frightened of the miller’s great girth or his powerful fists which could pound a fellow like a blacksmith hammering a sheet of metal.

‘You, sir!’ He tugged at the miller’s beard. ‘You said this was the way!’

The miller opened his red-rimmed eyes and glared fiercely at the knight. ‘Let go of my beard, sir!’

‘Surtees I will!’ The knight let go then drew his sword. He brought its blade flat down on the miller’s shoulder.

‘We shouldn’t have listened to him,’ the friar piped up.

‘Well, you did,’ declared the yeoman, Sir Godfrey’s loyal retainer.

It had all begun that morning. They had started out, merry enough with the sun rising and all refreshed after leaving St Botolph’s Priory. They were on the road to Canterbury and the miller had announced in a booming voice that they would pass near Demonhurst Copse, reputedly one of the most haunted woods in Kent. Full of good ale and meat from the priory kitchens, the pilgrims had all demanded to be taken there. After all, wasn’t the weather good, the sun strong, the trackways firm beneath their horses’ hooves? Moreover, the carpenter’s tale the previous night full of ghosts, demons and sprites, had fired their imaginations. Matters had not been helped when they had stopped at the White Horse tavern and the miller had indulged in some tantalising tales about Demonhurst. Sir Godfrey had objected, so had his son, his pretty face framed by golden locks. The yeoman also had shaken his head but, led on by that imp of Satan the summoner and the gap-toothed, merry-faced wife of Bath, the pilgrims had taken a vote: they would spend that night at Demonhurst.

They had left the main highway and journeyed along the lonely, winding lanes of Kent. The miller, of course, had filled his wineskin at the White Horse only to empty it in generous slurps. He had lost his wits and they had lost their way. Now darkness was falling. A cold breeze had sprung up and where was Demonhurst Copse?

‘By the rood!’ the flaxen-haired pardoner screeched, pushing his horse up beside the knight’s. ‘You have led us a merry jig, you golden-thumbed rascal!’

The miller just belched. He would have maintained his surliness but Sir Godfrey Evesden’s ice-blue eyes held his. A killing man, the miller thought, his fuddled mind now clearing; Sir Godfrey did not tolerate japes or jests at his expense.

‘You have led us here, sir!’ the knight hissed through clenched teeth. ‘Night is falling. We are cold, we are hungry, we are saddle-sore.’

The miller turned in the saddle. He stared down the lane thronged with pilgrims jostling on their tired mounts. The taverner approached, confident that the knight would protect him from the miller’s fierce rages.

‘Sir Godfrey speaks the truth,’ he barked. ‘I did not welcome your suggestions, sir.’

‘Shut up, you mealy-mouthed ale master!’ the miller spat back. ‘You wouldn’t know a firkin from a cask or a tit from a-’ Sir Godfrey’s sword slipped nearer his neck.

The miller caught the reproving eye of the lady prioress seated on her palfrey, still clasping that bloody lap dog. Behind her was the pale-faced monk, cowl pulled up. He was the only one who took pleasure out of the chaos caused: red lips parted, those white, jagged teeth jutting down like a dog’s! The miller shivered. He was frightened of no one but the monk terrified him – ever since Sir Godfrey had told that story about the blood-drinkers! Ah well, the miller concluded, it was time he showed these pious noddle-pates that he wasn’t as drunk as they thought. He turned with a creak in the saddle and pointed across the great field to his left. Thrust up from the earth, like some Satanic pillars, stood a huge copse of copper beech, oak, sycamore, rowan and ash.

‘Have a good look at that, you country sirs! See the many different varieties of tree? That’s because it’s ancient. There be Demonhurst Copse. I have brought you to it and Heaven help us if we spend the night there!’

The message was repeated down the line of pilgrims; they all stared across the field. The sun was now a fiery disc, casting out a strange, eerie glow. It lit the ploughed field and made the copse more threatening against the dark-blue night sky.

‘Pray to the good Lord,’ the man of law whispered to the franklin. ‘Sir, perhaps this was not a good idea.’

‘Do you think he’s lying?’ The franklin, with his snowywhite beard, adjusted the silken purse on his brocaded belt.

‘I don’t think so,’ the man of law replied. ‘Our miller may be sottish in his ways but he has sharp wits. I have heard of Demonhurst. But, come, it’s either there or sleeping in the fields.’

Sir Godfrey had already found a gap in the hedge. Led by him, the pilgrims streamed across the field. The night air felt cooler away from the protection of the hedges and as they drew closer, the copse seemed taller, more forbidding. Sir Godfrey’s hand fell to the pommel of his sword. His son came up beside him.

‘Does it remind you, Father?’

‘Yes, it does,’ Sir Godfrey replied, his mind going back to those sombre, heavily wooded valleys of Transylvania and Walachia. ‘Devil’s places’ he had called them, sprawling forests of eternal night, which housed all forms of horror. Sir Godfrey’s mouth became dry; he wished there was more sound from the trees.

The rest of the pilgrims hung back. Sir Godfrey urged his horse into a canter, a show of defiance against his own fears and theirs. Among the trees the undergrowth grew thick and rich but there were trackways through. Silent as the graveyard! Sir Godfrey cursed as an owl hooted high in the branches and his horse became nervous at the cracking and the snapping among the bracken. The trees were ancient, moss-covered; their branches stretched out, interlacing with each other as if in quiet conspiracy against the sky. Sir Godfrey turned in the saddle.

‘Come on!’ he shouted. ‘This is where you wanted to rest, so rest ye will!’

Led by the squire and the yeoman, the weary pilgrims entered this midnight place. All conversation died as if they wished to respect the hushed silence surrounding them. Sir Godfrey urged his war horse on. A skilled, trained animal, the destrier obeyed, although Sir Godfrey felt its muscles tense as if it was about to rear up and lash out as he had trained it to do whenever danger threatened. Here and there the trees thinned into small glades. A rabbit scurried across the path. Sir Godfrey’s horse whinnied in protest and the knight leaned down and patted it gently on the neck.

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