The house was dark, everyone long since abed, as Sir Thomas let himself out through the side door. He would not be missed, he hoped. He had told his wife he would be sitting up late in his study, reckoning up his accounts ready for the quarter day. He stood for a moment after he had closed the door behind him, in case anyone had been disturbed by the sound of the latch falling into place, then tugged his fur trimmed gown more closely around his body as he set out on his walk. It was a cold night, made colder by the gnawing fear at the edge of his mind. He carried a dark lantern. He knew his way well enough, even in the darkness, and there was no need to advertise his errand to curious eyes.
At the door of the small cottage, a man waited, well wrapped in a dark cloak. Thomas hesitated, fearing to move out of the shadows, until the man shifted his position a little, and he saw that it was the old priest.
‘Good even to you, Father,’ he said, coming forward.
‘A good even, is it? I think it will be a better one when our business is done,’ Father Gervase responded. Thomas only grunted in reply. The priest had said no more than he himself was thinking. He knew his wife would call him a fool if she knew what he had done, and was doing tonight. She already thought him a fool, to spend so much on mere show, not knowing his true intent. He thought maybe she was right. He was not sure, even now, why he had followed this course. Some misguided sense of chivalry, perhaps? A duty and obligation to those who had gone before him here? But the quicker they began, the quicker it would be done. He pushed open the rough wooden door of the cottage and led the way inside.
Closing the door, he unshuttered his lantern and raised it high. There was only one room. A beaten earth floor, with a few rushes strewn. An open hearth, the fire cold for several days now, with a cooking pot and an earthenware plate and bowl beside it. A rough wooden stool, a wooden chest set back against the wall. Little enough to show for the life of this man. Thomas looked towards the pallet in the corner. The old man lay there, hands folded peacefully on his breast. Beside the pallet stood a roughly made coffin, empty, the lid propped against the side.
The priest moved towards the figure on the bed, raising his hand in the sign of the cross, murmuring the Latin phrases. Thomas turned to the chest, going down on one knee in front of it. Setting the lantern down on the floor, he lifted the lid and carefully turned over the contents. A spare doublet and linen shirt. Two books. Not what one would expect to find, but it was well known that this man had learning unusual in a poor man. Thomas knew there might be other things, though, less easily explained, which should not be left for others to find. He lifted the lantern and held it over the chest, feeling with his free hand into the deep shadow in the corners. There was something there, wrapped in a piece of cloth. He lifted it out.
The door rattled and opened. Thomas stood, tucking the cloth wrapped item into his doublet, and turned to face the man who had entered.
‘Ned,’ he greeted his wife’s brother. ‘Do you have what we need?’
‘Ay. A poor beggar that died under the hedge two nights since. There’s none to ask what became of him, or that even knows his name.’
Thomas nodded. There were many such masterless men roaming around the country; there would be more such deaths as the winter took hold.
‘Where is he?’
‘Tom’s with him outside,’ Ned said. ‘He helped me bring him on the bier from the church. We’ll be needing it for … ’ Ned glanced towards the still figure on the pallet in the corner.
‘Yes.’ Thomas stood a moment, then said, ‘Come, let us do this.’
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