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by Sarah Woodbury
Copyright © 2019 by Sarah Woodbury
Cast of Characters
Edward – King of England
Eleanor– Queen of England
Edmund – Prince of England, Edward’s younger brother
Henry de Lacy – Earl of Lincoln, Lord of Denbigh
Guy fitz Lacy – Coroner, illegitimate half-brother of Henry de Lacy
Oliver de Poitiers – Undercoroner
Rolf le Strange – son of Roger le Strange
John le Strange – Rolf’s twin brother
Simon Boydell – captain of the King’s Guard
Margaret – lady-in-waiting
Adeline – lady-in-waiting
Catrin – lady-in-waiting
Rhys – quaestor; knight
Gruffydd – village headman
Sian – Gruffydd’s wife
Dai – assistant to the undercoroner
Father Medwyn – priest of St. Peblig’s Church
Tudur – Welsh nobleman, Catrin’s brother, Rhys’s liege lord
Hywel – Welsh nobleman, Catrin’s brother
The word, crouchback, might conjure an image of some kind of deformity, and indeed for many years scholars believed King Edward’s brother, Edmund, to have been hunchbacked because he was referred to by contemporary chroniclers as Edmund Crouchback.
Rather than being a reference to Prince Edmund’s physical appearance, however, crouchback was actually an accolade and referred to his participation in the Ninth Crusade. During the medieval period, by going on crusade, a man was not only cleansed of his sins for a lifetime but from then on was accorded the honor of being allowed to have a cross embroidered onto the back of his clothing. The word crouchback derives from the French word for cross, croix, which became ‘crouch’ in English. Thus, crouchback is another word for crusader—and the title of this book.
Day One (late evening)
“I want the truth, Catrin.” Queen Eleanor of England, being one of the most perceptive and intelligent people Catrin had ever met, was aware of Catrin’s roiling emotions, even as she tried to mask them in polite smiles. “Don’t pretend with me.”
“Yes, my lady. It is true. They do not reverence you.”
Eleanor eased into the cushions at her back, a pleased smile on her lips. The heavy curtains around the bed were drawn back, and the window was open, letting in the fresh evening air, scented strongly with salt, since Caernarfon Castle was located on the edge of the Irish Sea. Eleanor liked a cool room to sleep in, and she had little patience for anyone who told her it was bad for the baby she was carrying. “They hate us, you mean. I knew I was right about that. But even better, they fear us.”
“Yes, my lady.”
The ride to Caernarfon in the carriage had been nothing if not grueling for Eleanor, who was past eight months pregnant. But the queen supported her husband’s agenda. What better way to convey the king’s might than to have his latest child born in Wales, in his magnificent stone castle of Caernarfon? The walls were going up at an astounding rate, already rising forty feet above the Gwynedd countryside.
Eleanor wasn’t finished. “You hate me too, of course.”
“Don’t lie to me, child. Never lie to me.”
At thirty-six years old, Catrin was hardly a child, but Eleanor saw all the Welsh as children in need of instruction. On the whole, that might be better than viewing them as criminals or slaves. If the Welsh were children, their need for rebellion wasn’t their fault and could be forgiven. Eleanor herself was forty-three, about to give birth to her sixteenth child. Having endured the deaths of nine of them, she’d earned the right to call Catrin, who had one grown son, child.
“No, my lady. I won’t, my lady.” But, of course, that too was a lie, if only of omission. Though Catrin could not be openly hostile to the queen and serve her, she never hid the fact that she was Welsh and would do what she could for her people.
Even Catrin didn’t know the lengths she would go to if pressed. She hoped Eleanor didn’t, either.
The queen maintained that slight, enigmatic smile she often wore to hide what was in her mind. “That will do for now. You’re dismissed.”
Catrin curtseyed and backed out of the room.
The previous evening, the queen’s party had arrived later than intended, having made the grueling twenty-mile journey from Conwy in a carriage. For the whole of the trip, the queen and her other ladies had looked out the window at the ruggedness of the mountains of Snowdonia and voiced dismay at the coarseness of the country. Nowhere to be seen were the orderly fields and gentle rolling hills of England. The majority of smallholders in Wales weren’t farmers like the English, but herders, driving sheep and cattle up the valleys to mountain pastures and back according to the season. Except for a few instances, they rarely congregated into villages.
And while the carriage had been surrounded by a company of a hundred men, and patrols had swept through the entire area to ensure its safety, the women had still feared that, at any moment, a band of Welsh rebels might descend out of the mountains and murder them.
Catrin shared none of that fear because she knew what they didn’t: her people were pragmatists. With their own prince dead, they had no leader, no goals, and no hope. Even for the chance to kill King Edward, they wouldn’t be sacrificing their lives for nothing.
For her part, Catrin had spent the journey basking in the beauty and glory of the scene before her. In the heart of spring, the hills were green and blooming with wildflowers, and the highest peaks still showed a last residue of snow. It was as if she’d been holding her breath for twenty years and hadn’t known it. She was home, and she could breathe again. She felt the joy of it to her very bones.
Not that she could show that either, of course, not really, given the company in which she traveled. Part of her would have preferred not to come home at all if it meant riding through the countryside like a triumphant conqueror. Even though Catrin had known when Prince Llywelyn died at a place called Cilmeri that it was the end of her world as she knew it, she hadn’t truly understood what that meant until yesterday.
King Edward was everyone’s liege lord now. Aided by his brother, Edmund Crouchback, a nickname the prince had earned by participating in the Ninth Crusade, Edward had conquered Wales from stem to stern and everywhere in between, just as he’d sworn to do thirty years earlier after Prince Llywelyn had swept across the Conwy River into eastern Gwynedd and conquered domains Edward believed rightfully belonged to him. At the time a prince of seventeen, Edward had felt derided and humiliated, and neither emotion was one he could or would ever forgive or forget.
As she looked into the eyes of the people they passed on the brand new road leading up to the entrance to the half-finished castle of Caernarfon, Catrin had seen humiliation in their eyes, along with raw hatred, even as their mouths said something different.
Just like hers.
Now in the corridor outside Queen Eleanor’s room, Catrin eyed a servant coming towards her. With every step, he slopped water from the bucket he carried, intended for the maid, who was scrubbing the stone floor of the corridor. Both servants were English, brought to Caernarfon from England because no Welsh people were allowed to serve the king and queen within their private quarters. Except for a small handful with special skills, none were even allowed inside the castle walls. None except Catrin, that is.
In the last year, the steward had learned the hard way that when Welsh people were conscripted to work, the running of the castle went less smoothly. These particular servants were working so late in the evening because the queen didn’t like to see them cleaning during the day. Only now that she’d retired for the night could the corridor be scrubbed, and the stones would be dry by the time Eleanor rose in the morning.
Catrin’s own conscription into the queen’s retinue had come nearly simultaneously with her son’s eighteenth birthday. As the only native Welsh person in Eleanor’s company, she’d been called upon time and again over the course of the last few weeks to explain what her people were thinking as well as translate their words.
That was the reason she’d been asked to join Eleanor’s retinue in the first place. Catrin’s husband, Robert, had died not quite two years earlier in a battle against the Welsh, led by Gilbert de Clare, the Earl of Gloucester and one of King Edward’s most trusted companions—as well as Robert’s liege lord. The English army had just sacked one castle and were returning to another when they were set upon by a Welsh army and destroyed. Catrin had mourned appropriately, for her son’s sake more than for her husband’s or her own, and she’d continued to manage his estate near Bristol as she’d done for the whole of her marriage.
Once the war was over, Gilbert de Clare had not only confirmed Justin in his inheritance and knighted him, but arranged for his marriage to the daughter of another local baron. There had been no place for Catrin in the household, not with a new bride who would want to do things her way. Besides which, the queen’s summons had been impossible to turn down.
None could go against the King and Queen of England, least of all Catrin.
Not overtly, anyway.
Day One (late evening)
Rhys didn’t glance in acknowledgment of the person who’d spoken, one of a dozen locals who’d gathered in the darkness of late evening to stand vigil over the dead body they’d found at the abandoned barn set on rising ground amidst a wood above Caernarfon Castle. The accolade had been said in an undertone, for Rhys’s ears alone, and it told him someone he’d passed knew who he was and respected him for it.
Countryman, the speaker had said.
It was a cry in the dark and a thumbing of the nose against the winds of fate. For the truth was stark: they didn’t have a country anymore. Combined as they now were into one country, serving one king, the Welsh and their Norman masters had never been farther apart than they were today.
Guy fitz Lacy, an illegitimate son of the deceased Earl of Lincoln and the county coroner, was walking beside Rhys, but he gave no sign he’d heard. Of course, as a Norman, he spoke no Welsh, so even if he had heard, he wouldn’t have understood either the obvious meaning or the more subtle one.
A coroner was a most trusted servant of the king, responsible for collecting taxes and payments accrued to the king upon the death of one of the county’s residents. King Edward had created coroners and sheriffs as part of the statute that annexed Wales to England. To the king’s mind, Divine Providence had wholly and entirely transferred under our proper dominion, the land of Wales, with its inhabitants, heretofore subject unto us, in feudal right …
Gone was the Kingdom of Gwynedd, replaced by English counties. Except for a few remnants, gone also were the ancient Laws of Hywel Dda, which had governed Wales for hundreds of years, replaced by English common law.
Oliver de Poitiers, the coroner’s underling, was waiting for them at the entrance to the barn. “It isn’t pretty.” He spoke in French and also had a Welshman at his side to translate commands and questions to the Welsh peasants who surrounded them. “And it smells worse.”
“Pretty covers a great deal of ground,” Rhys said to Dai, the companion in question, whom he knew well. Every Welshman in Caernarfon knew every other one well, by virtue of their joint survival.
Dai grimaced. “The mochyn is right. It’s worse than I’ve ever seen. And odd. Oliver almost vomited on his boots.” Mochyn was the Welsh word for pig and the standard epithet everyone had taken to using when referring to any Norman. Dai had spoken, however, in an utterly calm tone and with an expressionless face. “You’re going to be sorry you came.”
Rhys shook his head. “The summons saved me from having to stay a moment longer at the feast.”
“Lord Tudur had to bend the knee again?”
“All of us did. No knight could refuse. I managed not to throw up on my own boots. Truly, I’ll take a dead body any day over having to grit my teeth and smile for one more hour.”
The Normans he served knew Rhys was a knight, but since he didn’t dress like one, nor attempt to garner privileges to himself, more often than not they dismissed him as irrelevant. As a rule, it was how he preferred it, the better to go about his business without interference. That wasn’t to say he didn’t miss the comforting weight of his sword at his hip.
“You have many more hours of that ahead of you, combrogi. Know that we thank you for it.” He paused. “And so you don’t have to lie about what we’ve been discussing, my mother is well, thank you very much.”
In another life, any conversation about submitting to some Norman overlord, if necessary at all, would have been accompanied by rolled eyes and smirks. The two of them managed it tonight with hardly a twitch of an eyebrow. It was a matter of personal pride.
Guy glared at the two Welshmen. “What are you saying? We haven’t even seen the body yet!”
Rhys smoothly switched to French. “I apologize, but it is our way to speak of our families when we encounter one another before discussing murder.”
“Save it for your own time. I want to get this over with. I have a great deal to do, as you well know. I’ll be leaving in a few days, and I don’t want some local murder keeping me here overlong.”
Rhys bowed. “Of course, my lord.”
In recent days, Guy had spoken of little else beyond his promotion. For the last year, he’d acted as coroner for this region of Gwynedd, but last month he’d been promoted to Sheriff of Denbigh. Denbigh castle and town were similar in every way to Caernarfon except, rather than being ruled directly by the king, they were controlled by Guy’s half-brother, Henry, who’d inherited the title Earl of Lincoln. Earl Henry also managed all of Gwynedd east of the River Conwy, making him the second most hated man in Wales, after King Edward. Rhys was just as happy to see Guy gone as Guy was to leave—except for the fear that his replacement would be smarter and more cruel.
Guy also avoided saying Rhys’s name because he could never manage the breathy sound and the trill of the r. And since a Welsh surname wasn’t a place name like with Oliver de Poitiers or a family name like Lacy, but rather the name of a man’s father, Guy couldn’t call Rhys by that either, as it was Iorwerth, which Guy couldn’t pronounce—or spell had he been able to write. To Rhys, in public, Guy was Coroner Lacy or my lord, and when Guy referred to Rhys as anything at all, he called him Reese.
They followed the undercoroner and Dai into the barn—and almost found their way back out again immediately, driven off by the promised foul smell. Rhys had the foresight to bring a sachet of herbs, which he held to his nose. He tossed another to Dai and then, with a bow, handed two more to Guy and Oliver, who accepted them without thanks.
The scene was as difficult and odd as Dai had indicated. A larger-than-average man, broad-shouldered and tall, with hair long enough to curl around his ears, much like King Edward himself wore, and clothed only in a knight’s surcoat, lay in the center of an incomplete hexfoil or daisy wheel—a six-pointed petaled flower inscribed inside a circle. Except, in this instance, the circle was incomplete and the sixth petal missing. Rhys had a momentary flashing memory of heat and dust and sunbaked bricks, before coming back to the coolness of the Welsh April night.
By the narrowness of the line and its depth, the curse had been drawn with the point of a knife—maybe the same knife used to kill the man—rather than a stick or, God forbid, the dead man’s blood.
Every woman in Britain, whether Welsh or English, had at one time or another carved a hexfoil, either in the dirt, on a door frame, or in a whitewashed church wall. Hexfoils were a request to God and the saints for protection—to foil a hex, in other words. The miracle of the symbol was in its endless loop. A demon would follow the circle or along the edges of the petal perpetually, never getting out again to do harm.
No housewife would ever leave the circle open. It was possible the dead man had carved this particular hexfoil as a last request for protection as he was dying, but when making the symbol, generally a person made the full circle first and then etched the flower within it. It would have been far too much to ask of the man who lay within the circle, dead from what appeared to be, after a quick check under the surcoat, three stab wounds to the right side of his belly.
The circle had been drawn in the center of the barn, which, for all that it was abandoned, remained in relatively good repair. The roof was solid, and wisps of hay trailed down from the loft. The floor was hard-packed earth, still dry and swept clean by wind blown through the open doors, one of which was half-off its hinges.
“Madness!” Guy stared at the body with a mix of horror and revulsion, standing well back to prevent blood from marring his boots and where the smell was slightly better.
A decade younger than Rhys, Guy wasn’t even thirty, and while he’d participated in the war that had destroyed Rhys’s prince, he hadn’t led forces of his own. It was Rhys’s thought that Guy had never actually killed another man himself, and thus his familiarity with violent death was limited. He hadn’t been acting as the coroner for Caernarfon because of his experience, but because of his name.
Thus, when Guy’s revulsion turned to anger, his face flushing, and he asked, “Do we know the man?” Rhys was hesitant to say anything at all. Guy was right to wonder, since the dead man was cleanshaven like a Norman rather than sporting a mustache like most Welshmen or a full beard like an Englishman.
Oliver cleared his throat. “I don’t recognize him myself, my lord.”
Guy was forced to move closer and stare into the dead man’s face. Though Guy hated showing uncertainty at the best of times, he forgot himself long enough to scratch the back of his head. “Nor I. There’s something familiar about him, however.” He gestured to the incomplete hexfoil. “And about this.”
Rhys himself had seen an incomplete hexfoil many times before. He very much wanted to know where Guy had seen it, but before he could figure out the most diplomatic way to ask, Dai said with total innocence, “You have come upon such a symbol before, my lord?”
Guy shot him a look that said he was irritated at being questioned, but he still answered. “Not I myself, but I have heard tales of others seeing it.”
“Where would that have been?”
“The Holy Land.”
Rhys had mouthed the words even as Guy spoke them out loud. In the Holy Land, it had been a symbol of a renegade group of Templars who were trying to bring down their order. Since then, others had adopted it for their own nefarious purposes.
Oliver’s focus was elsewhere, and he spoke tentatively. “Note the crest on his surcoat, my lord.”
“She couldn’t have had anything to do with this.” Guy glared at his underling, as if the sight of him was a personal affront.
Oliver put up both hands. “I would never think it, my lord!”
The she in question was Catrin, a widow in the royal court and one of the queen’s ladies. Just this evening, before he and Rhys had been called to the scene of the death, Guy had made a foray in her direction—and been roundly rejected. It seemed the pair had encountered each other before, not surprising since Catrin had spent the last twenty years living in England, and Guy was the brother of the Earl of Lincoln, even if he had no title himself.
Guy carried the Lacy name, since his father had acknowledged him, but in the Norman system, he would inherit nothing and had to fight for everything he had. Until the conquest, the law in Wales had said that all of a man’s sons inherited equally with every other, including the illegitimate ones, provided the father acknowledged them. Now under English law, illegitimate sons had no standing anywhere. At the same time, given the Norman penchant for bestowing all of a dead man’s wealth on the eldest son, Guy wasn’t much worse off than if he’d been legitimate but simply born second or third.
Such was the case with Rhys’s childhood friend, Hywel, whose family had owned extensive estates in Gwynedd and Anglesey and been second in status only to Prince Llywelyn himself. With the abrogation of Welsh law, his elder brother Tudur inherited everything—land the family had been able to hold onto only by bowing to Edward and begging forgiveness for supporting Llywelyn. Suddenly deprived of lands he’d held for half his life and having survived the war and the purge afterwards, Hywel was making his way in the world the best he could. At this point, his station was hardly higher than that of Rhys himself, whose family had been noble but far more minor.
Catrin was Hywel and Tudur’s sister.
Rhys could conjure dozens of images of Catrin, growing from a ragamuffin with unruly red hair and mischievous hazel eyes to the smooth perfection she’d developed as a young woman before her marriage. The way her eyes had snapped at Guy in the exact same way they had at Rhys himself a thousand times as a youth had made Rhys smile, even as he worried that she shouldn’t antagonize Caernarfon’s coroner any more than Rhys should.
Given that rejection, and that it was Catrin’s dead Norman husband’s crest on the victim’s chest, Rhys had to give Guy credit for not holding her treatment of him against her. So far, all Rhys had done was lift the surcoat, but now he bent to touch the body, putting his fingers gently around a wrist. The skin was cool to the touch, and the arm came up, though not flaccidly, indicating rigor was passing but had not entirely passed. In truth, the smell had told Rhys the timing before he’d lifted the arm.
Rhys set the dead man’s wrist down again.
“We will have to address the issue, my lord,” Oliver said, still talking about the surcoat.
Rhys wet his lips, considering the wisdom of offering an opinion and deciding it was worth the possibility of censure. “My lord, you have so many duties, it would be a shame to trouble yourself with something so slight. If you were to delegate me to confer with the lady, you needn’t concern yourself with the matter again.” Though still crouched by the body, he gave another partial bow. If courtesy were butter, it wasn’t possible to lay it on too thick. “I’m sure you’re correct that she is blameless. The man has been dead longer than the royal party has been in Caernarfon.”
“Why do you say that?” Guy narrowed his eyes, looking for ridicule or worse, pity, in Rhys’s eyes or voice, but he saw none.
“I’d say he was killed roughly two nights ago and not in this barn.”
“Explain,” he said, snapping his fingers with impatience.
“The body is cool and still has a touch of rigor, so he has been dead in the vicinity of two days. He was stabbed in the belly, but I see no blood on the floor of the barn, indicating he was killed elsewhere and placed here after.”
Guy grunted, finding nothing to dispute in what Rhys had concluded. “I will leave Lady Catrin to you, then. But first, determine which of these villeins found the body so we can bring him to the castle for questioning. Clearly one of your people did this. If the dead man is Norman, an example will have to be made.” He turned on his heel and made for the door.
Rhys simply rose to his feet, smiled politely, and said to Guy’s retreating back. “Of course, my lord.”
Dai understood French as well as Rhys, which was the reason he’d been assigned to the undercoroner in the first place. For once, he was unable to maintain his impassive façade. In urgent tones he said to Rhys in Welsh, “No, combrogi! You cannot do as he asks! We know what will happen to anyone you take.”
Rhys did know. He scrubbed at his hair, though he kept it too short these days to truly muss, a legacy from when the monks had shaved his head, in the aftermath of the disaster at Cilmeri, in order to bandage his wounds. Before, he’d kept it longer and tied back from his face with a leather string. With his trimmed beard, which he’d started growing only in the last year, his current presentation was a disguise of a sort, for those who might remember him in his youth.
“Who found him?”
“Iago, the butcher’s son.”
“What possessed him to come here?” Before Dai could answer, Rhys put up a hand. “Never mind. I know why. Who was he with?”
“Mari, one of headman Gruffydd’s girls.”
Rhys growled his acknowledgement and understanding. Since the fall of Gwynedd to the Normans, the barn had become derelict and thus an ideal meeting place for young couples. It was located on the edge of a property that, until a year ago, had been a royal llys—a palace—of Gwynedd’s princes and kings for generations if not centuries. King Edward had ordered the palace dismantled, with pieces being used to build Caernarfon Castle itself.
Of the palaces in the region, only the one at Aberffraw on Anglesey remained intact. One of Edward’s many vassals lived there now, despite its lack of grandeur.
After Prince Llywelyn’s death, Rhys had contemplated leaving Wales entirely, taking the cross again perhaps, or selling himself as a mercenary in someone else’s war. In the end, he’d come to the decision that to do so would be the coward’s way out. His people were indentured to Edward, villeins as Coroner Lacy had said. Rhys had returned to help them if he could. These days, the Welsh had very little left to them except their lives. King Edward had defeated them utterly, and now he was solidifying his control by building castles and taxing the people into impoverishment.
For Rhys, there could be no nobler place to stand than alongside them.