This is the first three chapters of my new medieval mystery, The Good Knight! Enjoy 🙂
August, 1143 AD
Gwynedd (North Wales)
“Look at you, girl.”
Gwen’s father, Meilyr, tsked under his breath and brought his borrowed horse closer to her side of the path. He’d been out of sorts since early morning when he’d found his horse lame and King Anarawd and his company of soldiers had left the castle without them, refusing to wait for Meilyr to find a replacement mount. Anarawd’s men-at-arms would have provided Meilyr with the fine escort he coveted.
“You’ll have no cause for complaint once we reach Owain Gwynedd’s court.” A breeze wafted over Gwen’s face and she closed her eyes, letting her pony find his own way for a moment. “I won’t embarrass you at the wedding.”
“If you cared more for your appearance, you would have been married yourself years ago and given me grandchildren long since.”
Gwen opened her eyes, her forehead wrinkling in annoyance. “And whose fault is it that I’m unmarried?” Her fingers flexed about the reins but she forced herself to relax. Her present appearance was her own doing, even if her father found it intolerable. In her bag, she had fine clothes and ribbons to weave through her hair, but saw no point in sullying any of them on the long journey to Aber Castle.
King Owain Gwynedd’s daughter was due to marry King Anarawd in three days’ time. Owain Gwynedd had invited Gwen, her father, and her twelve-year old brother, Gwalchmai, to furnish the entertainment for the event, provided King Owain and her father could bridge the six years of animosity and silence that separated them. Meilyr had sung for King Owain’s father, Gruffydd; he’d practically raised King Owain’s son, Hywel. But six years was six years. No wonder her father’s temper was short.
Even so, she couldn’t let her father’s comments go. Responsibility for the fact that she had no husband rested firmly on his shoulders. “Who refused the contract?”
“Rhys was a rapscallion and a laze-about,” Meilyr said.
And you weren’t about to give up your housekeeper, maidservant, cook, and child-minder to just anyone, were you?
But instead of speaking, Gwen bit her tongue and kept her thoughts to herself. She’d said it once and received a slap to her face. Many nights she’d lain quiet beside her younger brother, regretting that she hadn’t defied her father and stayed with Rhys. They could have eloped; in seven years, their marriage would have been as legal as any other. But her father was right and Gwen wasn’t too proud to admit it: Rhys had been a laze-about. She wouldn’t have been happy with him. Rhys’ father had almost cried when Meilyr had refused Rhys’ offer. It wasn’t only daughters who were sometimes hard to sell.
“Father!” Gwalchmai brought their cart to a halt. “Come look at this!”
“What now?” Meilyr said. “We’ll have to spend the night at Caerhun at present rate. You know how important it is not to keep King Owain waiting.”
“But Father!” Gwalchmai leapt from the cart and ran forward.
“He’s serious.” Gwen urged her pony after him, passing the cart, and then abruptly reined in beside her brother. “Mary, Mother of God…”
A slight rise and sudden dip in the path ahead had hidden the carnage until they were upon it. Twenty men and an equal number of horses lay dead in the road, their bodies contorted and their blood soaking the brown earth. Gwalchmai bent forward and retched into the grass beside the road. Gwen’s stomach threatened to undo her too, but she fought the bile down and dismounted to wrap her arms around her brother.
Meilyr reined in beside his children. “Stay back.”
Gwen glanced at her father and then back to the scene, noticing for the first time a man kneeling among the wreckage, one hand to a dead man’s chest and the other resting on the hilt of his sheathed sword. The man straightened and Gwen’s breath caught in her throat.
He’d cropped his dark brown hair shorter than when she’d known him, but his blue eyes still reached into the core of her. Her heart beat a little faster as she drank him in. Five years ago, Gareth had been a man-at-arms in the service of Prince Cadwaladr, King Owain Gwynedd’s brother. Gareth and Gwen had become friends, and then more than friends, but before he could ask her father for her hand, Gareth had a falling out with Prince Cadwaladr. In the end, Gareth hadn’t been able to persuade Meilyr that he could support her despite his lack of station.
Gwen was so focused on Gareth that she wasn’t aware of the other men among them—live ones—until they approached her family. A half dozen converged on them at the same time. One caught her upper arm in a tight grip. Another grabbed Meilyr’s bridle. “Who are you?” the soldier said.
Meilyr stood in the stirrups and pointed a finger at Gareth. “Tell them who I am!”
Gareth came forward, his eyes flicking from Meilyr to Gwalchmai to Gwen. He was broader in the shoulders, too, than she remembered.
“They are friends,” Gareth said. “Release them.”
And to Gwen’s astonishment, the man-at-arms who held her obeyed Gareth. Could it be that in the years since she’d last seen him, Gareth had regained something of what he’d lost?
Gareth halted by Meilyr’s horse. “I was sent from Aber to meet King Anarawd and escort him through Gwynedd. He wasn’t even due to arrive at Dolwyddelan Castle until today, but …” He gestured to the men on the ground. “Clearly, we were too late.”
Gwen looked past Gareth to the murdered men in the road.
“Turn away, Gwen,” Gareth said.
But Gwen couldn’t. The blood—on the dead men, on the ground, on the knees of Gareth’s breeches—mesmerized her. The men here had been slaughtered. Her skin twitched at the hate in the air. “You mean King Anarawd is—is—is among them?”
“The King is dead,” Gareth said.
Could this situation be worse? Gareth couldn’t imagine how. Facing Gwen over a handful of dead bodies was one thing—not pleasant, but something with which he could cope. It was something else entirely to face Gwen’s father after not seeing either of them since Meilyr had rejected Gareth’s offer for Gwen. Meilyr oozed resentment, as if a better life could have been had than singing for the lords and kings of Wales. At least Gwen’s presence indicated that he’d not restrained her more than needful, nor sold her to the highest bidder. That she stood in front of him as beautiful as ever, and as if the intervening years had never happened, took his breath away.
At the sight of her, he wanted to either punch the air in exaltation or pull her into his arms, but did neither. Instead, he said, “Are there more of you? Are you traveling with a company?”
“No.” Gwen looked up at him, tears in the corners of her eyes. “We’d hoped to ride alongside King Anarawd, but my father’s horse went lame and delayed us at Dolwyddelan. The King and his men left without us.”
“Praise God they did,” Meilyr said. “If we’d traveled with him, we’d be dead too.”
Leave it to him to think about his own skin first, though in this instance, Gareth couldn’t blame him. If he’d had Gwen and Gwalchmai to protect, he’d have felt the same way.
“Gwalchmai seems a sturdy lad,” Gareth said. “If I give him my horse, can he ride back to Dolwyddelan? We need carts to transport the dead. It’s only a few miles—”
“I know how far it is,” Meilyr said, reverting to his habitual scorn. “We’ve just come that distance.”
That told Gareth all he needed to know about the state of Meilyr’s nerves. It was bad enough for Meilyr to ride into Aber Castle after so many years away and ask King Owain Gwynedd for entrance, even if he’d been invited. It was quite another to do the same with the dead body of the bridegroom thrown over his horse.
“Do you have any idea who did this?” Gwen said.
“Not specifically.” Gareth forced his eyes away from her, willing to talk to Gwen but not wanting to relate what he knew in front of Gwalchmai and Meilyr.
“Did you see anyone on the road to the north?” Gwen stepped closer to him and his arm itched to go around her. He stayed his hand. They’d fallen in love shortly after Meilyr’s falling out with King Owain, but now hadn’t spoken for five years. Their last words, while not thrown at each other in anger, had been full of pain. Christ. I was more a child than she was, for all I’ve seven years on her.
“No. I would have expected more traffic, given the upcoming wedding.” Gareth glanced at Anarawd’s body and added “—which won’t be taking place now.”
“Why would anyone want to stop Anarawd from marrying Elen?” Gwalchmai asked this with all the innocence of a twelve-year old. “It’s a perfect match.”
“I don’t know about that,” Gareth said, “but it looks as if the men who ambushed Anarawd chose the perfect moment.”
“Perfect?” Meilyr’s voice was full of outrage.
“I apologize for the poor choice of words,” Gareth said, suppressing his irritation at how quickly Meilyr grew angry. “I only meant that they must have planned this very carefully, as well as had fortune on their side.”
Her hand to her throat, Gwen stared at the dead men. Their bodies lay as if a giant had tumbled them together. Gareth thought about taking her arm after all, fearing she’d retreated dangerously inside herself and might be going into shock.
But then she spoke. “No company of men could cause so much death and leave nothing of themselves behind. There must be something here we can link to their identity. A token, a fallen surcoat, something…”
“Don’t—” Gareth reached a hand to stop her from entering the battlefield but in one step she moved out of his range.
“Let her be,” Meilyr said, his voice back to a growl, but not as disapproving as Gareth might have expected, given that his daughter picked her way among the dead. “It’s not the first time she’s been a part of a scene like this.”
“What do you mean?” Gareth said.
“She spies for Owain’s son, Hywel.” Gwalchmai blurted out the words and then swallowed hard at Gareth’s incredulous look.
“You’re not serious.” Gareth glanced from Meilyr to Gwalchmai, who gave him a weak smile. “You are serious?”
“She didn’t ask my permission, if that’s what you mean,” Meilyr said. “Just told me one day that I might stop her from marrying the man she wanted—that would be you—but she was going to follow her own road in this and I didn’t have any say in the matter.” Meilyr dismounted, his legs jerking stiffly. “Not a thing I could do to stop her.”
Gareth barked a laugh. “If I remember anything about her, I remember that.” He turned to Gwalchmai and handed him his own horse’s reins. “Here, boy. Don’t stop for anything or anyone.”
“What about the men who did this?” Gwalchmai’s voice trembled as he asked this question but then he firmed his chin.
Gareth placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder to reassure him. “They’re surely gone by now. And they wouldn’t be on the road to Dolwyddelan, regardless.”
“You’ll be fine. Ride straight back the way we came,” Meilyr said.
“Yes, sir.” With a last look at his father and a nod to Gareth, Gwalchmai spurred away. Galloping hard, he disappeared around a bend in the road, the echo of the horse’s hooves fading into the distance.
Gareth canted his head at Meilyr. “I could have sent one of the men-at-arms, but thought it would be better if Gwalchmai had something to do besides look at dead men.”
Gareth restrained his disbelief that Meilyr would thank him for anything and just nodded, not knowing what else to say.
Gwen had come to rest beside the fallen Anarawd and looked up at Gareth as he approached. “I can’t believe I spoke to King Anarawd only this morning. I can’t decide which feels more like a dream, then or now.”
Gareth had no words to comfort her. “I wish we were dreaming.” He studied the body of the downed king. Anarawd sported a few gray hairs, but even at forty years old, had the physique of a much younger man, with shoulders used to wearing armor and no sign of a softened belly.
“Tell me what you wouldn’t speak about in front of the others,” Gwen said.
Trust her to read me that well, even after all these years apart. Gareth thought for a moment, reliving the scene, and then indicated the rise in the road a hundred yards north of their position. “I’d just crested the ridge there when the two sides met in force below me. I could do nothing to help Anarawd, being only one man, so I rode to find the scouting party from Caerhun, led by my friend Madog, whom I’d encountered by the river earlier.” Gareth shrugged. “The battle here was over by the time I returned with Madog and the other soldiers.”
They both glanced at the host of men he’d brought. All wore the red and yellow crest of Gwynedd on their surcoats, as did Gareth himself. They’d begun to shift the dead men, laying them out side by side on the road. Gareth knelt beside Gwen, drawing her attention back to him. “Tell me what you see.”
Before Gwen’s family had come upon him, Gareth had stripped the armor from Anarawd’s body and pulled open his shirt, exposing the fatal wound, a slender cut between two ribs where his attacker had thrust a blade into Anarawd’s heart.
“It looks…” Gwen hesitated, and then tried again. “The wound is different from all the others, isn’t it?” She traced the cut with one finger. “Narrower.”
“Yes,” Gareth said. “A sword couldn’t have caused it.”
“A knife, then?”
“One with a notch in the blade.”
Gwen looked more closely. “That’s why it didn’t cut cleanly?”
“What do you suppose this means?”
Gareth tugged down Anarawd’s shirt to cover his ruined torso and straightened. The wind blew through the trees and he listened for unnatural sounds above or beneath it. Rain had fallen in the night and now that the sun had risen high in the sky, light filtered through the leafy trees and the damp earth gave off an oppressive heat. “I couldn’t say. Not yet anyway.” He studied the ground around Anarawd. “What I can tell you is that Anarawd didn’t die where he lies.”
Gwen got to her feet too, though her head was still bent and her eyes on Anarawd. “How do you know?”
“By the lack of blood underneath the body and by the dirt and scuff marks on his toes,” Gareth said. “Someone dragged Anarawd face down from the place where he was killed.”
“Why would he drag him face down?”
“So he didn’t have to look at Anarawd’s expression and dwell on what he’d done?” Gareth said.
Gwen thought about that. “It would have been easier to drag him by the feet, surely. Much less awkward.”
“But then the skin on Anarawd’s face or the back of his head, were he face up, would have become marred,” Gareth said. “Anyone who found him would have asked questions.”
“As it is, the killer didn’t reckon on you.”
Gareth glanced at her, his expression deliberately unreadable, but it didn’t matter since her face remained downturned. She’d complimented him. He tried not to wonder if he still meant something to her. Then he gestured towards Anarawd’s chest. “From the stains on his shirt, he was standing up when he was stabbed and didn’t bleed out lying on his back.”
“Can you find where he fell?” Gwen said.
“Perhaps.” Gareth traced the perimeter of the battle with his eyes. “Anarawd knew his killer. He must have, to have allowed him to get so close.”
“All of a sudden, the quiet feels menacing, doesn’t it?” Gwen said.
One of the other men approached Gareth. “The attackers might still be out there, my lord. They might even return.”
“I know that, Madog. But Anarawd wasn’t just ambushed. He was murdered. I’ll need to examine his body more closely once we reach Aber. Right now, however, I must survey the area and discover whatever I can before the men trample all the evidence.”
“I’ll come with you,” Gwen said.
Gareth met Madog’s gaze. His friend gave him a quick nod before moving away, out of earshot. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea…” Gareth’s words trailed off as Gwen moved closer to him.
“Hywel trusts me,” she said. “I can help you.”
Gareth glanced to where Gwen’s father stood, his hands on his hips and his mouth in a thin line, staring at them. Gareth saw disapproval in his face, but whether he objected to Gwen’s close proximity to him or to the situation they were in, Gareth didn’t know. “And maybe with the two of us working together, we can get this over with more quickly so that you can get to Aber Castle sooner rather than later?”
Gwen nodded her head sharply.
“You’re worried about your father.”
“We’re all worried about this meeting with Owain Gwynedd,” she said. “King Owain may have invited my father to sing at the wedding, but it was my father who swallowed his pride first and asked for King Owain’s patronage. Now, with Anarawd’s death, King Owain will be very angry. How much harder is that going to make his meeting with my father?”
“As I recall, it was a mere spat that shouldn’t have solidified into enmity so easily.”
“You’re right,” she said.
“Remind me what happened.” The words came out an order, and he thought to backtrack since it wasn’t his place to order her about, but Gwen only shrugged and told him.
“It was nothing. After King Gruffydd died, Owain Gwynedd didn’t immediately choose my father to continue in his service as court bard. My father was offended.”
Gareth smirked. “That is an image I have no trouble picturing.”
Gwen made a rueful face. “So we left. We’ve returned now only because my brother needs a patron and my father would do anything to find a settled place for him. We lived among the royal court during all my growing up years. The king held his hand over us, and that was worth almost any kind of sacrifice, though it could hardly have been called that. That is something my father would like to establish for Gwalchmai before he dies.”
“Before he—” Gareth couldn’t finish the sentence. “Your father looks well.”
“He is well. He’s just feeling morbid.” Gwen gestured to the bodies. “Which this will do nothing to help.”
“So Meilyr doesn’t actually want the position of chief bard for himself?” Gareth tried to keep the incredulity out of his voice but didn’t think he was entirely successful.
Gwen shot him a brief smile. “No.”
“That’s a tricky position to be in—for everyone—but particularly Gwalchmai, upon whom all your father’s hopes rest.”
“You can see why it would be better to have some idea of who did this when we bring Anarawd’s body to King Owain,” Gwen said. “Anarawd was the king’s friend and the man who would have been his son-in-law.”
Gareth looked towards Gwen’s father again. Meilyr had stopped studying them and was rummaging through a satchel in the back of their cart. “Let’s see what we can find. And it would be better if we hurried.”
“Do you think whoever did this will come back, like Madog said?”
Gareth read real fear in Gwen’s face. He didn’t like seeing it. “I assured your brother that they wouldn’t, but—” Gareth tensed his shoulders and then relaxed them. Nothing about this day had gone right. The longer they stood here, the more worried he became. “This might not be over. Not by a long shot.”
How can it be that he’s here? Gareth of all people? As she followed Gareth through the woods, Gwen cursed herself for her muddy hem and unkempt hair—and the fact that instead of greeting him and throwing herself into his arms as she wanted to, she was examining a murder scene for Hywel. That was so like her and her luck. How many nights had she lain awake, imagining herself in her best dress, her hair perfectly coifed, singing without mistake for a company of noble lords in a hall. Halfway through the evening, Gareth would appear and fall in love with her all over again.
It had never happened, of course, and she’d long since given up hope of ever seeing him again. She’d half-convinced herself that he’d died in some far away land, fighting someone else’s battle.
“What’s this about you spying for Hywel?” Gareth said, as they picked their way among the trees.
“Who told you that?” Gwen said.
“Gwalchmai,” Gareth said.
Gwen sighed at her brother’s too-free tongue. “Hywel’s position in his father’s household has always been precarious. It was bad when we left and has gotten worse since then. Not long after I last saw…” she stopped, swallowed, and rushed on, “ … I last saw you, Hywel visited the home of his cousin in Powys and it happened that we played there that winter. He spoke to me then about keeping an eye out for trouble and I said I’d see what I could do.”
“And have you?” Gareth said. “Seen what you could do, I mean.”
“I can’t say what value I’ve been to him. My reports are mostly on the comings and goings of his people, both high and low,” Gwen said. “Who conspires with whom; who has sued whom over what land; whose marriage bed is colder than it should be.”
“Your father said you’ve been among the dead before.”
“I never thought to involve myself in anything dangerous,” Gwen said. “But we served in many households, and … things kept happening. My father was even accused of murder once and it was up to me to find the truth because nobody else would.”
“If I’m ever accused of murder, I would be delighted if you would extend me the same courtesy,” Gareth said.
Gwen smiled, as she was sure he meant her to, but then sobered, looking over her shoulder at the men strewn along the road. “Nearly two dozen men, all dead, all put to the sword either in battle or once they lay stunned on the ground. All except Anarawd, who was killed with a knife.”
Gareth crouched low to the ground. “Here.” He brushed away a few fallen leaves to reveal a man’s footprints, clearly embedded in the soft earth. Further on were more footprints, and then more again.
“How many men in the party, do you think?” Gwen said, glad they could talk about something else, even if it was murder.
“More than enough to surprise Anarawd’s troop,” Gareth said. “Anarawd and his men stood little chance, taken unawares as it appears they were.” He eyed the road and the woods beyond. “The attackers waited here—probably here and in the trees opposite—for Anarawd’s company to ride past. King Anarawd and his men would have been unconcerned and unsuspecting of danger. They were well within the confines of King Owain’s territory and only an hour out of Dolwyddelan. They’d gone—what?— four miles at most?”
“Something like that.” Gwen and her family had ridden that distance at a walk, which was all the horse who drew the cart could manage most days. They’d left two hours after Anarawd and his men. That meant the ambush had occurred at least two hours before this moment and more likely three, which made sense since the bodies were still warm, but stiff. Unmolested, the company would have nearly reached Aber by now. Gwen pursed her lips as she studied the footprints. “You knew what to look for,” she said. “You’ve seen this type of thing before?”
“Ambushes are the easiest way to eliminate a rival,” Gareth said. “And like yours, my tenure with Hywel has been—” Gareth paused to glance up at Gwen, an actual smile hovering around his lips as he sought for the proper word, “—irregular.”
“My father told me that you’d hired yourself out to the highest bidder,” Gwen said. At the renewal of Gareth’s uncanny stillness, she kicked herself for not keeping that question to herself, but she had to know. “You fought as a mercenary.”
Gareth took in a breath that was almost a curse. Throughout their conversation, Gwen had found it difficult to look into his face because she was afraid of what she might see there, but now it was impossible. She scuffled at the fallen leaves and dirt that made up the floor of the forest. No glint of metal or other indication of men appeared, other than their trampling footprints.
“That’s true as far as it goes,” he said. “When I left Prince Cadwaladr’s service, I had nowhere to go. I was skilled with a sword and such men are always needed in Wales, with the Vikings, the Irish, and the ever-present English hemming us in on every side.”
“I wasn’t criticizing you.” Gwen’s voice went soft. “Just asking. How long have you worked for Hywel?”
“Almost four years,” he said. “Despite what your father might think, I’m good at what I do and those for whom I fought recognized it. Hywel was one of several lords who offered me a permanent place in their teulu.”
“You wear a fine ring,” Gwen said.
“A gift.” Gareth fisted the hand that wore it. “It was given to me along with my horse when I joined Hywel’s band. Prince Hywel’s brother, Rhun, knighted me six months ago after a skirmish with the Normans near Chester.”
Six months. He’s been a knight for six months, and yet … Gwen shook herself and held her tongue. Five years was a long time to carry the memory of someone in your heart—someone you’d not seen and had no reason to think still loved you. It wasn’t surprising that he’d not bothered to find her.
The sharp twang of an untuned note carried through the heavy air. With his legs swinging nearly to the ground, Meilyr sat in the bed of the cart, holding a lyre. He could always find comfort with an instrument in his hands.
“I would have brought more bowmen than the attackers did.” Gareth turned back to their task. “I find it odd they had so few. It seems shortsighted to me. It makes the success of an ambush less certain.”
“Maybe none of the men our murderer trusted were archers,” Gwen said.
“Yet he found enough men to do his dirty work,” Gareth said. “That sounds like a man with noble blood—with power and reach.”
“It doesn’t sound very noble to me,” Gwen said.
“You and I both know that many ignoble men inspire fierce loyalty in those who serve them,” Gareth said.
“Or the lord who ordered this made promises his men thought he could keep. Damn it.” Gareth spun on one heel to look back to the road. “We need answers now. Owain Gwynedd won’t want to wait until some lord’s men are curiously richer or rewarded more than their due. We will be bringing King Anarawd’s body to him at Aber today.”
Gwen’s heart turned cold at the memory of King Owain’s temper, and then even colder still as another thought struck her. “What if the man who ordered King Anarawd’s death is Owain Gwynedd?”