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The ordered calm of Gloucester Abbey is shattered by the disappearance of one of the resident monks. Two novices, Elaf and Kenelm, show little concern for the missing Brother Nicholas. Rebelling against monastic discipline, they indulge in secret midnight adventures. Fearing discovery during their latest exploit, they hide in the Bell Tower, certain that they won’t be found. Elaf, stumbling in the dark, trips over something and realizes, to his horror, that it is a dead body. Brother Nicholas has been found, his throat slit from ear to ear.
The Abbey becomes paralyzed with fear. The Abbot is ill-equipped to deal with such a heinous crime and is still reeling from his conversation with the sheriff, who is convinced that one of the other brothers must be a killer. After all, who else would have access to the Abbey Church? Domesday commissioners Ralph Delchard and Gervase Bret arrive, sent to resolve a land dispute. The vicious murder takes immediate priority, however, and they doubt the local sheriff’s ability to solve the baffling case. Before long, Ralph and Gervase realize that the killing is just a symptom of a sinister presence that threatens the whole community and must be stopped at any cost. Inspired by real entries in the historic Domesday Book, The Owls of Gloucester is the tenth mystery in Edward Marston’s spellbinding and richly drawn eleventh-century crime series.
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Edward Marston is the author of nine previous novels in the Domesday series. He also writes an Edgar Award--nominated series set in the theaters of Elizabethan England. He lives in the United Kingdom.
The Owls of Gloucester
Chapter OneRalph Delchard reined in his horse and held up an imperious hand to bring the cavalcade to a halt. Shading his eyes against the afternoon sun, he gazed into the distance. A rueful smile surfaced.'There it is,' he said, pointing an accusing finger. 'Gloucester. That's where this whole sorry business started. That's where the King, in his wisdom or folly, had his deep speech with his Council and announced the Great Survey which has been the bane of my life for so long. Consider this: if the Conqueror had not spent Christmas at Gloucester, I might not have been forced to wear the skin off my arse riding from one end of the kingdom to the other.''Do not take it so personally,' said Gervase Bret, mounted beside him. 'The King did not order the creation of this Domesday Book simply to irritate Ralph Delchard.''I am more than irritated, Gervase.''You've made that clear.''I am appalled. Disgusted. Enraged.''Think of our predecessors. They did most of the work. The first commissioners to visit this fair county toiled long and hard without complaint. All that we have to deal with are the irregularities they uncovered. In this case, they are few in number.''How many times have I heard you say that?''Our task should be completed in less than a week.''That, too, has a familiar ring.''I have studied the documents, Ralph. Only one major dispute confronts us. It will not tax us overmuch.''What about the things that do not appear in the documents?''Do not appear?''Yes,' said Ralph wearily. 'Contingencies. Unforeseen hazards. Like the skulduggery we found in Warwick. The dangers we met in Oxford. The small matter of border warfare in Chester. The foul murder of our dear colleague in Exeter. Our documents failed to warn us about any of those things.''Unfortunate mishaps.''They were disasters, Gervase. Cunningly devised by Fate itself to torment me. Have you forgotten Wiltshire?' he added, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. 'I shuddered when we rode past the Savernake Forest again. Think of the problems we had there. And in Canterbury. And York. And Maldon. And every other damnable place it has pleased the King to send us.''Including Hereford?'Ralph was checked. 'That was different,' he conceded.'Very different,' Gervase reminded him with a grin. 'You went to Hereford to expose villainy and found yourself a wife into the bargain.' He glanced behind him. 'And an excellent bargain she was.''The best I ever made.'Golde, the lady in question, was riding at the rear of the column with Canon Hubert, the portly commissioner whose donkey always seemed too small and spindly to bear his excessive weight. While her husband led the way, Golde enjoyed a conversation with Hubert and even managed to prise an occasional word out of Brother Simon, the emaciated monk who acted as scribe to the commission and whose fear of the female sex was so profound that he usually retreated into anguished silence in the presence of a woman. It was a tribute to Golde that she had finally broken through the invisible wall Simon had constructed around himself. He remained wary but no longer felt that the sanctity of his manhood was threatened.Ten knights from Ralph's own retinue acted as an escort and towed the sumpter horses along with them. Like their lord, theywore helm and hauberk and bore swords and lances. On their latest assignment fine weather had favoured them all the way from Winchester and their hosts along the route had provided good accommodation and a cordial welcome. The pleasant journey had lifted the spirits of all but one of them. Ralph Delchard was the odd man out.'Hereford was the exception,' he agreed for a second time. 'It gave me the most precious thing I have. My beloved wife. Though there's a strange irony in the fact that I spend most of my life fighting the Saxons then end up marrying one of them.' He gave a wry smile. 'Not that I regret the decision for one moment. It has brought me true happiness. Or it would do, if the Conqueror allowed me the time to enjoy it.' His gaze travelled back to the city on the horizon. 'The one saving grace of Gloucester is that it can be reached easily from Hereford. We have sent word for Golde's sister to meet us there.''I look forward to seeing Aelgar once more,' said Gervase.'As long as she is our only visitor from Hereford!''What do you mean?''Don't you recall who else we first met there?''Archdeacon Idwal?''Do not mention that accursed name!' said Ralph with a grimace. 'He was a Welsh demon. Summoned from hell to make my life a misery. He stalked me both in Hereford and in Chester. Now can you see why I did not wish to come to Gloucester? Whenever we get near the Welsh border, that fiend of hell pops up in front of me.''Idwal is no fiend of hell.''His very name unnerves me! Do not mention it!''The archdeacon was a devout man.''He was living proof that the Devil speaks in Welsh.''I liked him,' said Gervase. 'We had some lively discussions. But you're quite safe, Ralph. I doubt very much that we shall encounter him in Gloucester. He is Archdeacon of St David's now.Far away in west Wales. What possible reason can he have to come to Gloucester?''I will be there.'Ralph yelled a command then set the troop in motion once more.Gervase had more reason than any of them to want a swift end to their latest assignment. Ralph preferred to take Golde with him on the King's business, but Gervase had left his own wife, Alys, alone at home in Winchester, pining for her husband and praying for his quick return. Devoted as he was to her, Gervase never even considered the notion of bringing Alys with him because he knew that he would be so concerned for her safety and comfort that he would be unable to give his work the concentration it needed. Ralph was different, seemingly able to separate his private life from his public responsibilities without any effort.Marriage was still too fresh an experience for Gervase for him to be able to put its joys aside when his wife was with him, and he knew that Alys, so young and vulnerable, lacked Golde's ability to fade into the background while her husband discharged his duties as a commissioner. And there was another significant factor. Ralph and his wife had both been married before. They were seasoned in the art of togetherness, skilled in the nuances of love, sure enough to give each other space and freedom. Compared to them, Gervase was a raw beginner. He had vowed that Alys would be his one and only wife and he was still learning to understand the limitations of that vow.Like Golde, and the two Benedictine monks in their black habits, he was an incongruous figure among the armed soldiers. Wearing the sober attire of a Chancery clerk, Gervase Bret was the lawyer in the party, a clever advocate with a subtle mind. He was also the recognised diplomat, able to relate easily to everyone and to reach each of them on their own terms. Ralph Delchard revelled in his mockery of both Canon Hubert and Brother Simon and it was left to Gervase to smooth ruffled monastic feathers ona regular basis. By the same token, he could act on behalf of his fellow commissioner or scribe with the acknowledged leader of the commission, representing their point of view in a way which made Ralph take it seriously. Golde was also very fond of him, not least because he could speak her native language fluently, having been born of a Saxon mother. Ralph Delchard might be nominally in charge but it was Gervase Bret who really bonded the group together.A steady canter was bringing Gloucester ever nearer. Situated in border country between England and Wales, it occupied a strategic position on the River Severn, a fiercely tidal waterway which swept down to the estuary and made Gloucester a thriving port as well as a crucial Norman garrison.Ralph came out of his reverie and turned to his young friend.'We should all stay at the castle,' he said brusquely.'Hubert and Simon have elected to go to the abbey.''Our business can be dispatched more readily if we are all under the same roof. Make that point to them, Gervase.''They already appreciate it.''Then why must they escape into the abbey?''For the same reason that a soldier like you turns instinctively to a fortress. They feel at home there just as you do in a castle. Besides,' said Gervase, 'Hubert is anxious to renew his acquaintance with Abbot Serlo. It is something we should encourage.''Why?''Because the abbey will be a useful source of intelligence. Nothing eludes the sharp eyes of a monastic community. What we fail to find out at the castle, Hubert and Simon will assuredly learn within the enclave.''Two holy spies, eh?''No, Ralph. Two Benedictine monks mixing with their brothers.''Relishing the latest scandal. Whatever it may be.''Picking up useful gossip. Canon Hubert is well known to theabbot. He will be taken into his confidence.''You are right, Gervase. Let them go to the abbey.''Not that there will be much for them to find out, mark you.''How can you be so sure?''I sense it,' said Gervase confidently. 'Gloucester will be a benign place for us to visit. No hidden menaces this time - not even a Welsh archdeacon to yap at your heels.''God forbid!''Take my word for it, Ralph. You may relax.''I have lost the art of doing so.''Rediscover it again in Gloucester. Trust me. It will turn out to be the least troublesome city we have visited.'
Abbot Serlo stared down at the naked body of Brother Nicholas with a mixture of...
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