A GEORGIAN HISTORICAL MYSTERY
Alec Halsey Mystery Series Book 4
S ummer 1764. Alec and Selina anxiously await the birth of their first child at their estate in Kent. It should be a time of family celebration, but the death of a young poacher has Alec investigating murder. And when renovations to his sprawling manor unearth a secret burial chamber, a shocking family secret comes to light. Everything Alec thought he knew about his birth is again called into question, and with it the special bond with his irascible uncle Plantagenet.
Alec Halsey Mysteries
FIVETREES KENT, SUMMER 1764
The beast lay dead at their feet.
Blood, bright red, seeped from the wound in tiny bubbles where the arrow had pierced the flesh, entered the heart and clipped a lung. When struck, the beast had lifted its heavy head, startled. It then turned and fled, frantic, from the open pasture to the safety of cover deep in the wood.
One last spirited display of life in the fading light of a summer’s day.
Two of three youths gave chase, crashing through bracken, dodging branches, slipping and sliding in the sodden leaves and mud, prepared to run until their lungs burst. This beast was theirs, and it wasn’t getting away.
A hundred yards into dense forest and they found it collapsed by a lichen-covered tree trunk, gasping its last.
They approached with caution, unconvinced such a mighty animal could be brought down by a single arrow from a crossbow. They feared it could still have some fight left in it yet, and rear up in one last act of defiance. And if it did, and they were too close, it would gore them and they would find themselves wounded and bleeding.
But the beast did not rally.
Emboldened, one of the youths stuck out his muddy foot and gave the inert body a prod with his toe. When there was no reaction, he moved closer and pressed his foot into the wound. Blood oozed and pooled around the arrow and dripped into the leaf litter. His friend snatched up a stick, and holding it at arm’s length, poked the beast’s flank. And like his friend, when the beast did not react, he moved closer and poked again, and a third time. Each poke more forceful than the last.
They taunted the beast in death to rise again, caution extinguished with its demise. And now that it was dead and stared out at the world without blinking, they were brave and triumphant. Never in all their thirteen summers would they have dreamed of being so close to such an animal. Such beasts were only glimpsed at dawn and at dusk, and even then they were out of the reach of mere mortals. They and the herd were the property and hunted playthings of kings and nobles.
And here they were, village boys without a pair of shoes between them, victorious hunters. They wanted to shout their triumph from the tree tops.
It was a foolish want, and one that would be denied them. They were trespassers—in this wood, on this estate, and at this particular hour such trespass was a hanging offence. Not that anyone who had been caught had ever been hanged. A caution from the gamekeeper was enough to be warned off, for a few weeks at least. But a caution would not do for them this time. This time they had killed, and His Lordship’s most prized stag. This time, if they were caught, they would dangle from the end of a rope.
Such a shared thought, as if it were a startling revelation and only now realized, made the youths step away from the beast. They stared at one another, and then without warning, surprised themselves by bursting into laughter. It was the sort of high-pitched nervous laugh that derives from absolute panic. But neither wanted to admit to being frightened or show they cared in any way about the consequences of their actions. And to their relief, neither was required to admit to it.
A third youth, the ringleader, and the one who had shot the fatal arrow, pushed between them and ordered they shut up. Had they forgotten they’d heard voices deep in the wood? It could be their brethren looking to net a couple of hares or a brace of partridges. What if it were Adams the gamekeeper and his assistants, who always made a habit of prowling at sun up and sun down? Did they want to get caught and hanged?
That wiped the smiles from his friends’ faces. They obediently shook their heads and shut their mouths, a wary look about, as if these men were behind them.
The ringleader put aside the crossbow and went down on bended knee before the beast. But he did not prod or poke it. Nor was he wary. He gently placed a hand on its flank and caressed the soft fur with his palm, and bowed his head in veneration.
He knew this stag. It was no ordinary beast. It was king of its kind. The elder statesman amongst the harts in His Lordship’s herd. Close up, it was larger than estimated, the neck thick and strong, the antlers wide and heavy. With sixteen points, it was a rack worthy of display in the Great Hall, along with the other prize racks from impressive beasts slain by noble ancestors down the centuries. But this one deserved pride of place above His Lordship’s enormous hearth. But Lord Halsey, lord and master of this deer park and of the thousands of acres surrounding it, was to be denied the privilege of claiming his own stag. So too his land-owning neighbors.
This kill was no mere trophy for a nobleman to strut before. This kill was not for Marquess Halsey. He, Hugh Turner, was laying claim to this magnificent stag on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed—those poor sods who had been evicted from common land which they had farmed and grazed their cattle for hundreds of years. This beast was for the parish, and every parish in the kingdom, left with nothing and nowhere to turn since the notorious Black Act had robbed them of their livelihood. And while they starved, His Lordship’s deer ate what had once fed the poor’s pigs, and grew fatter. The local landowners grew fatter, too, and more prosperous, and emboldened, and hunted His Lordship’s lands without fear of reprisal. For who would dare prosecute the prosecutors?
Beating these men at their own game was the only answer. Hurt them where it hurt most—their pockets and their paunches. This beast was to be their example. To prove a point. To show His Lordship and his landowning cronies that if they treated those beneath them with disdain and indifference, then just like the stag who proudly strutted about its dominion as if it owned the world, they would discover they, too, were not invulnerable.
Hugh’s friends were not sure what he meant by his impassioned speeches about the poor and the dispossessed. And they had no idea about the Black Acts. But they were all in for the excitement and the thrill of the kill. And they rubbed their hands in glee at the anticipated fortune this beast’s venison would bring them. And then as now, Hugh reminded them of their pledge.
“Not a penny,” he hissed, getting to his feet and turning to face them. “We agreed. Remember? Nic? Will?”
The youths looked at one another, and Will said what they were both thinking.
“Aye. We did. But this one’s got to be twice the size and so worth twice as much, and with enough meat for every—”
“No. We’re not common thieves. This beast is to be a symbol. It can’t have died in vain.”
“It’s not in vain if it feeds a village!” Nic argued.
“And think of the coin we’d get for selling its meat.”
Hugh took a menacing step forward. “Sometimes I wonder if you two have listened to a word I’ve said! And I said no!”
“We do. We have. But the days aren’t like they used to be. Since the new lord has come to live amongst us, it’s a different world, ain’t it?”
“It’s not like families starve these days, is it?” stuck in Nic. “There’s plenty of work up at the Hall for all of us.”
“And Pa reckons with all the improvements His Lordship’s makin’, they’ll be more than enough work until our graves are dug.”
“Sally says Her Ladyship takes a keen interest in everythin’!”
“What would your silly sister know?” Hugh spat out. “She’s a laundress.”
“She hears things,” Nic mumbled.
Hugh looked from one to the other, crossed his arms.
“In one breath you’re tellin’ me we should cut up the beast to feed a starvin’ village, and in the next you’re sayin’ His Lordship has made us all fat and happy and we got work till we drop dead! Which is it?”
When his friends opened their mouths but looked confused, Hugh shook his head and grinned. He put his arms around their necks and pulled them in. “I’ll say one thing we can all agree upon,” he whispered conspiratorially. “We don’t want to get caught. So let’s get what we came for and get out of here before night’s upon us.”
“What about the rest of it?”
“Seems a shame to let it waste.”
Hugh let go of his friends with a clap to their backs and stood straight.
“Old Bill. He’ll know what to do with the rest. Always has. You may even get a portion when he finds out who sent good fortune his way.”
It was said that Old Bill had been a poacher all his life until a man-trap cut off his leg, and his livelihood, and forced him indoors. Now he acted as go-between in the distribution of illegal kill. Not that anyone had ever seen Old Bill. But everyone knew where his cottage was to be found in the forest. That decided the youths, and their smiles returned. But just as quickly those smiles disappeared again.
Not far off amongst the trees there were men calling to one another. It couldn’t be a rival poaching gang, or His Lordship’s gamekeeper and his assistants. The former wouldn’t make a sound whilst stalking, and the latter wouldn’t either if they hoped to catch trespassers on His Lordship’s lands. So whoever it was, they must be searching for something or someone.
The boom from a blunderbuss had the youths leaping and jittery. It had the opposite effect on Hugh, who grinned. He tried to calm his friends.
“It’s Adams. That’s a warning shot. And it’s the only one he’ll give. We’ve got to hurry.”
“What? He knows it’s us?” Nic hissed.
“Not us precisely. But he’s lettin’ any trespassers know there are hunters—”
It was Will who blurted out the name. When Hugh nodded, Nic and Will stared about wildly, as if the man himself was behind them. Sir Tinsley Ferris was the largest landowner after Lord Halsey. And while his lands were a fifth the size of His Lordship’s estate, he was the local magistrate. Which meant he held the power of life or death over all those beneath him, which was everyone except His Lordship. Ferris was feared and loathed in equal measure.
Hugh huffed and returned to the fallen stag.
“Don’t tell me y’scared of another poacher?” he taunted, fighting back his fear but not his loathing. “That’s what Ferris is, ain’t he? This is His Lordship’s land, and yet Ferris and his friends have been stalking upon it for years. That’s stealing in anyone’s books, ain’t it?” When his friends nodded, he added with a wry grin, “Adams did us a courtesy by discharging his shotgun—”
“—to let us know the Squire was about?” Nic interrupted, awed.
“I reckon so. Dare say that blunderbuss scattered the herd too. Which wouldn’t please His Lordship’s neighbor, now would it?”
Nic and Will grinned at the thought of the frustrated and angry Sir Tinsley returning home empty-handed.
Hugh went down on his knees in the leaf litter and pulled the bloodied arrow free from the stag. He held it out to Nic.
“Put this in the quiver,” he ordered. “And bring me the knife and saw.”
Nic took the arrow but remained rooted to the spot.
“You still goin’ to take the rack? There ain’t time now to do what needs doin’!”
“A’course there is! They’re not nearly as close as you think.”
“We won’t be able to carry it away fast enough,” Will added.
Hugh looked over his shoulder. His friends were both white-faced. He resisted the urge to huff again, and said flatly, “Then we’ll carry it just over there, behind that stump, and hide it. Cover it in leaf litter and come back for it tomorrow. But first I got to hack the head off, don’t I? Oi! What the—Nic! Nic?”
With the words hack the head off, Nic flung the arrow down and fled into the wood.
Hugh wanted to shout that he was a sniveling coward, but that would surely give away their position. Instead he quickly searched out the arrow, thrust it into his quiver, and returned with his knife and small saw. Before he knelt again he stared at Will.
“You goin’ to be a girl about this and run off too?”
“I reckon you need me to hold the rack steady while you saw.”
Hugh relaxed. “Aye. I do.” He held up the knife. “Best get to work.”
Will tried to be a man about it, but he’d never seen freshly-dead kill of this size skinned, least of all a head sawn in two. Rabbits and chickens, yes, even a sheep, but the crack of bone being split and muscle being hacked was a grisly business, and soon Hugh was elbow deep in blood and sinew, the front of his shirt splattered with the same. The final straw was the exposed brain, and Hugh’s fingers moving about inside the animal’s head. Will let go of the antlers, staggered, and vomited.
Hugh was so engrossed in the task and completing it as swiftly as possible that he only noticed Will wasn’t there when he had to quickly put up a hand to catch at an antler before the lot toppled and the saw slipped. He paused. Will was over by a tree, heaving. There was no time to waste while he threw up his guts. The stag and its rack were almost separated.
Hugh put aside the saw. He needed the knife to slice off the skin more cleanly. Checking his handiwork and holding the rack with one hand, his fingers searched out the knife which he’d dropped in the leaf litter by his knee. When he couldn’t put his fingers on it immediately, he took his eyes from the skinned, decapitated head of the stag, and looked around. That’s when he caught a glimpse of boot and glove.
He twisted about and looked up. Recognition sparked in his eyes and his mouth dropped into a frown.
“Why—Why are you here?”
The gloved hand clamped under his chin and jerked his head back until his nose pointed skyward, exposing white throat and a prominent Adam’s apple.
Hugh’s eyes widened, darting this way and that, mind reeling, wondering what game his attacker was playing at. He was held firm against a booted leg, and the gloved hand under his chin kept his teeth together. In his shock he did not think to struggle, and with his mouth shut tight he couldn’t protest. And then he knew. In that second, with his head pulled back until he thought his neck would snap, he knew his attacker’s intent. He did not see the knife nor did he feel it.
Hugh Turner’s final thought was not of his mother, or his father, or of his brother. He thought of Tabitha.