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Please note that GLBT Bookshelf -- the community wiki which was the parent to this fiction blog -- went offline on May 31, 2016, after seven years' service to members.

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A Man Lay Dead in Winter Part 3

The other parts can be found via this page.

The first indication that something was amiss was the shying of Johannes’ horse. Horace was far too concerned with his friend’s wellbeing to notice anything else, until he was sure that the man had his mount back under control and was in no danger. Once that was established, they were both able to turn their attention to what had caused the horse such distress and what was making his own gelding uneasy; a dead body, stabbed and bloody, in the middle of the ride which cut through the woods that covered the hill where the old earthworks were.

Johannes was out of his saddle in an instant. He had seen plenty of men hurt and killed on the crusade and they held no terrors for him. He soon recognised from the quantity of blood that the wound had gone straight to the heart or one of the great vessels near it. The victim’s clothes bore great patches of gore, the smell of which was causing the horses still to squirm and be troubled.

“Lead them away, Horace, upwind if you can. There is no more we can do for this poor soul.” Johannes carefully considered the body as his friend found somewhere to tether the mounts. It was a well-dressed young man, his scrip still at his waist and no evidence that his death had been part of a robbery, nor that there had been much of a struggle.

“We should raise the hue and cry. The Sherriff must be told.” Horace had returned and was staring at the body, his face almost as pale as that of the corpse. “If there are bands of cutthroats at work here…”

“If this were the work of robbers then the body would have been stripped. There’s no sign that such a thing was even started. Look at his clothes, Horace, this is good quality cloth and fur, and his scrip is still on him. Call for Kenwyn and send him for help. We should stay here and make sure that no-one comes upon the body by chance and cheats his family of what is due to them.”

“No man would rob a corpse, surely?”

“Men will do many a thing that you could not believe.”

Horace shook his head and wound his horn. Within a few minutes his groom rode along the path and found them. “My lord?” Kenwyn’s face was a picture of concern at having been called for, and then distress at seeing the body. “What happened?”

“We found this man, already beyond our aid. I would have you ride to Gloucester and fetch the Sheriff, Dinmont, or his deputy. There’s been murder done here.”

Kenwyn considered the sky; it had been darkening this last hour and now was grey and leaden. “I will, my lord, but I do not like the look of those clouds. There’s snow coming later or sooner. At the least it might delay my return, at worst it could make you cut off here. You must find shelter.”

“He’s right, Horace. We can’t stay out here with a dead body, it would be far too cold even if it doesn’t come on to snow. Hywel Dinmont will come here only to find three corpses.” Johannes smiled thoughtfully.

“There is a cot nearby—the grandfather of one of my cousins lives there, just off the main path through the forest.” Kenwyn pointed along the ride.

“Will he mind providing us with hospitality?” Horace was used to providing accommodation for others, but he had ample means. He wouldn’t wish to impose on a cottager so close to Christmas, at a time when food and fuel were often short, even if he could recompense the man handsomely afterwards.

“He is well provided for, my lord. We are a close family who always see to our own, whatever the need. And he is not at home at present. As I rode out to visit my cousin and her mother yesterday he was there, staying a day or two en route to spending the Holy days with his other daughter. He would not begrudge the use of his roof and hearth to someone in need; you could be warm there and keep this poor soul out of the way of the wild beasts.”

Horace shared an exchange of looks with his friend and an unspoken message of agreement passed between them. “Kenwyn, will you show us where this place is? There may be a pallet there we could transport the body on, behind one of the horses. If not, we will have to take it on the back of the gelding. He might be less bothered, especially if he has not far to bear such an unpleasant burden.”

“It can only be a matter of some hundred yards or so, my lord, I know the place well. I am glad now that I suggested we come up here to hunt. Although the sport has been poor, at least we have the satisfaction of helping our fellow man. Load him up on my mare, she is very placid and will go wherever I lead her, bearing whatever burden is required of her. She has a steady temperament and a dead man would not trouble her.”

It seemed a sensible solution all round, especially as the wind had begun to rise and the nip in the air grew sharper. When they reached the little clearing and saw the cottage, small but very sound, they were pleased to be able to find such suitable shelter. Horace tried to dissuade Kenwyn from going straight for the Sherriff—he was sure he had felt the first flake on his face as they had slowly paced along the ride and didn’t want his servant to be at risk. “Or let me go instead. Hugon is much more fleet of foot than your Cerys. She may be excellent at dealing with the smell of blood and death but she would not win a race.”

“I am happy to go, sir. You forget that I was brought up on these hills. I know all the short cuts and the best way to go when the weather draws in. There is much less danger in my going.” Kenwyn leapt onto his mare and turned her head, as if his decisiveness settled things. “I will see you as soon as the weather permits.”

Horace shouted at the rider’s back, to tell him to remember to put his cloak on against the bitter air, but Fitzrichard didn’t waste time watching the man depart. They had to get a fire started in the hearth—there seemed to be plenty of wood in a long, covered box—and they needed to find a place to put the corpse. Johannes may have had plenty of experience of the horrors of war but even he balked at sharing the cottage with a dead man. The wood store gave them the solution. The body could be placed there safe out of the way of beasts and if anyone tried to disturb it—Johannes had a niggling worry at the back of his mind about the murderer returning—then they would hear the person concerned and be able to defend themselves. The corpse was already beginning to stiffen and he was pleased they’d lain it out straight again after moving it from the horse, so there would be no undue unpleasantness.

Once they had performed their grisly deed Horace set about lighting the fire while his friend tethered their mounts out of the wind and assessed the likely provisions. There was a small well from which he was able to draw wholesome water, enabling him to fill a small bucket for the horses and two ewers for themselves. There was a little winter grass along the edges of the vegetable plot lying behind the cottage and he was happy for the animals to graze there. If it came on to snow they would have to find the beasts a little shelter among the trees.

The men had carried a flask of wine and some bread with them, the soldier’s natural provision against the possibility of hunger en route. Johannes found some salted meat in the household stores, probably the remains of the last season’s pig, which they might be able to broil over the flames. All in all they were not so badly off. Plenty of people would sup less well this night and many would have less pleasant company. For a man to have his lover at his side, who could reasonably ask for more?

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