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A Man Lay Dead in Winter Part 5

The other parts can be found via this page.

Horace was very quiet for a while, studying the flames as they danced in the hearth. He was aware that Johannes understood him more completely than anyone, perhaps even more than he did himself, but Johannes had no areas of character he wished to keep hidden, no unplumbed depths of which he was frightened. He had spent the last year and more teasing Horace out of himself, winkling the pearl of love and valour from the oyster of reserve and self-pity that had been created after the death of his father. The pearl had proved to be beyond price. “I do not know. I can understand the self-sacrifice, I can understand that very well. Had I gone to the crusades I might have fallen upon the sword of honour and valour, seeking to lose myself in the fight. I have wished it often enough but not had the courage to make it happen.”

“Do you wish it now?”

“You know the answer to that question. Need I repeat it?” Horace’s face softened into a smile. He appeared boyish and vulnerable by the light of the fire and Johannes knew he could never love anyone or anything as much as he loved this strange and dour fellow into whose manor he had come by accident some fifteen months back. “The part I find so hard is the idea of loving one’s neighbour as oneself. Very hard to accomplish the former when the latter is beyond one’s capabilities.” He nestled his head onto Johannes’s shoulder, finding all the comfort he needed in contact with the strong frame.

“Perhaps all the love I feel for you will kindle some dormant tinder within your heart and let you love yourself. Or at least like yourself. That would be a start.”

“Perhaps. I believe you have love enough for both of us.” Horace lifted his face and kissed his friend with as much tenderness as he could muster. “I wish we were at home in my bed.”

“Aye. But we are not and we must be aware both of not intruding on our host’s hospitality, especially when he is not aware that he gives it. And on the fact that either Kenwyn or Hywel or both might appear at any moment. A murder is scandalous enough. We do not want to risk disgrace on top.”

Horace smiled, recognising that his lover was not just a seemingly infinite fount of love but of wisdom too. “Then let us drink our wine and try to get some sleep. That snow is not likely to leave off for a while and I for one will want to have all my strength come morning.”

“Shall we take watch and watch? You should sleep first. I feel peculiarly awake and would welcome the chance to think.”

“And what will occupy your mind?”

“This scrip, Horace, and its contents. Perhaps they can tell us some more. I like a riddle; in my father’s house it was custom to entertain the assembled guests with games and word play. When I was but a boy I would sit for hours and try to join in solving the mysteries that were described.”

“What sort of mysteries? Not the sudden and unlawful death of a man on a winter’s day?”

“Sometimes. My paternal uncle had many a tale to relate of crimes that had been committed up in Shrewsbury and an exceptionally clever monk who had outwitted the culprits to bring them to justice. But often it was just silly things, puzzles to amaze and amuse. My favourite was about the man who rode into the Abbey on Lady Day, stayed the whole of two nights then rode out again on Lady Day.”

“That is not possible. Such a thing could not be.”

“Oh it could, Horace. I remember I had solved the problem long before the men of the household and whispered the answer in my father’s ear. He was so proud of me then—he always has been, bastard or not.”

“And will you tell me the solution? It must be a trick. The man stayed a year elsewhere and you did not tell me.” Horace didn’t like to be bested, especially by his lover.

“I will give you until morning then when we break our fast—it will be water from the well and any of that meat that remains—I will tell all. And perhaps I will have some ideas about our dead friend, too. Now sleep, you look done in.”

Johannes laid his lover’s head down on the makeshift pillow he’d fabricated from the saddle bags, and gently stroked his temples. Horace snuggled down like a babe with its mother and didn’t open his eyes again until he awoke with a start, convinced it was his turn to keep watch and that his lover had let him sleep over.

“Johannes, why didn’t you wake me?”

“Because you’ve only slept two hours, I would guess. The night is barely half through.”

“And you have a twinkle in your eye that I can even see by this firelight. What have you discovered, my faithful hound?”

“This.” Johannes produced a piece of parchment and laid it out where the glow of the fire might illuminate it. “I was looking to see if there was a lamp anywhere—to hope for candles would have been unrealistic—and I found a cache of things on a little shelf. Even in the dim light I could see that this meant something.” The paper carried a depiction of the seal which the dead man had carried.

“Extraordinary. What can it mean?”

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