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A Man Lay Dead in Winter part 9

The rest of the parts are linked here.

“I would not have you condemn the man out of hand. Any of these things could be explained away…” Horace’s voice faded uncertainly but he was heartened by the look in the Sherriff’s eye.

“They could indeed, and I will not make any assumptions. First of all I shall go and talk to the man whose cottage this is, and that granddaughter of his. I do not think that they will dissemble before me. Perhaps I might find your runaway there, too, if he’s not over the Severn and away by now. Only time will tell, but I will not harass or condemn an innocent man, you have my word.”

The body was by now safely strapped into the litter and Dinmont prepared to mount his own horse and go to find Kenwyn’s kin. He would take his stoutest man, both in spirit and in physique, with him to carry out this task. He didn’t want to end up another body by the wayside.

“I wish you success, sir.” Horace held out his hand in parting and nodded his gratitude at the men who were to bear their grizzly burden down into the city.

“And I wish you a blessed Christmas, both of you. Please God the New Year will bring us better times.”

“Amen to that.” Johannes said, with true feeling, as he watched the party move off along the path.

The sky suggested that the journey home should be less hazardous than the outward one had been; there seemed little risk of snow this day.

“You said that you had an excuse for misplacing your bridle. Would you care to lay it before me?” Horace’s spirits were low, this business—one of his own men perhaps a murderer—had hit him hard and he sought for any refuge from his dark thoughts. As always he found it in speech with his dearest friend and ardent lover.

Johannes sighed and made a concerted effort to raise both his own morale and that of his friend. “I was simply distracted. When we’d ridden in from Gloucester two days ago and I had been meaning to hang the thing where it would normally go. But while I saw to my horse—and yes, I know we have stable lads to do that but I was too long on crusade to let any other tend my mount, except you naturally—I saw such a look in your eye. The fresh air and the fine winter sun had raised your spirits enormously and that expression made me think, well, it diverted me from the matter in hand and kept me distracted until events had run their natural course.”

Horace blushed, remembering the wondrous conclusion of the evening. “Can I be so much of a distraction? That an old warrior neglects his gear, thinking of an amorous liaison?”

“You are more than a distraction, my love.” Johannes laughed, an incongruous sound after the happenings of the last day.

“And you are incorrigible. And…” Horace found himself smiling and laughing too, intoxicated by this creature at his side whose smile could dismiss all sorrow, “you have not told me the answer to the riddle.”

“The riddle? Oh that. You should be ashamed of yourself, finding a solution to a murder but not solving a children’s puzzle.”

“But a man can’t ride into a place on a feast day then stay less than a week and ride out on the same feast day. You must be mistaken.”

“And you are being too literal. He rode in on Lady Day just as you ride on Hugon. It was his horse, Horace, and he rode out on it again some days later.” Johannes grinned and took a deep breath of the sweet air that blew through the trees, smelling of snow and a distant hearth. “Have I rendered you speechless? I must try that more often.”

“You are a knave, sir, and a rascal.” Horace spurred his horse on. “We need to be getting home. I don’t like the look of that sky again.”

“Look of that sky, my grandfather’s beard. I know why you want to be home; you may fool all the rest of the world but you cannot pull the wool over my eyes. Perhaps I should dawdle a bit.”

“You do and you’ll find the gates locked to you, snow or not.”

“Come then, let’s negotiate the hill and then I’ll race you over the plain if the snow permits. First one home sets the next riddle.”

Horace took a look over his shoulder at the place they had lodged. It could no longer be seen but he felt its presence keenly. It had been the first place they had shared a bed, of sorts, outside his own demesne and irrespective of the bitter memories it would bear, murder and betrayal of trust, it would always have a special place in his heart. “I will take you up on the wager. And I’ll find a conundrum so hard you’ll never deduce it.”

The two lovers laughed and nudged their horses on a little faster.

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