One Day in Winchester

“Father Leofwine is dead.”

“Dead?” They stood together, the tall, strong man and his short, thin companion. The short one wore a nervous look, his hands moving rapidly as he glanced around the hall, but there was no one else around.

“Dead, Cynehelm,” the larger man said bluntly. “Dead in his bed, his throat cut. Some say black magic.”

“Good heavens, why bring magic into it? Wouldn’t a plain knife be enough to do the deed?”

“Well of course it would, but Queen Ealhswith is convinced that witchcraft was involved. She has taken ill from the news; you know much she favored the old priest. She believes it was the Danes, that one of their sorcerers used some pagan spell to kill Leofwine and send the court into disorder.” The larger man snorted.

Cynehelm could not see what was so amusing. “The queen is right, I’m sure, that it was the Danes, though I don’t know about magic. She’s right too that it will send the court into disorder, and just when we should all be focused on defeating our enemies. Why on earth didn’t Leofwine have guards?”

“He did, Cynehelm,” answered the larger man. “Two guards outside his door. They swore upon Saint Cuthbert’s comb that they saw no one enter or leave his chambers all night.”

“They lie, Ecgbald!” Cynehelm shouted. “Send them to a cell for a week and we’ll soon find out who killed Father Leofwine.”

Ecgbald only laughed. “The queen is satisfied with their testimony, Cynehelm, pious woman that she is, and King Alfred will not go against the queen, though I am sure he doubts them too. He took the news very hard. He relied on the old priest a great deal, which is no doubt why the Danes killed him. Now Alfred’s right hand is gone and every man in Winchester suspects that every other man might be the killer.” He laughed again, but this time he sounded very bitter.

Cynehelm was in no mood to laugh. “And the Danes will sit and wait while we accuse each other of being traitors, and who will see the defense of Wessex? For that matter, who will see that justice, real justice, is done to whoever did kill Leofwine? There is a traitor in the court, Ecgbald!”

“Of course there is a traitor, but God alone knows if we will ever find him. Now come, the king will want our counsel. Perhaps we will be lucky, and the murderer is already caught.” They departed down the corridor for the council chamber, still discussing what Leofwine’s death meant for Wessex and for England itself in the fight against the pagan Danes.

King Alfred’s council had already assembled by the time Cynehelm and Ecgbald arrived. Grimbold and Bishop Osfrid stood to one side, whispering, and Aldric, little more than twenty but with bright, intelligent eyes, sat reading at the long table. The king himself looked very tired, and when they entered, he only nodded at their bows. They took their places on either side of the table, and after a few minutes Alfred spoke, everyone very conscious of the empty place at the king’s side.

“I trust you are all aware of what has happened to Father Leofwine, a good man and a faithful servant of Wessex. No man mourns his murder more than I. But as much as it pains me, we cannot let this evil distract us from the fight that lies ahead. The Danes want us divided, pointing fingers at each other instead of swords at them, and I will not allow that to happen.” His eyes flickered to each of his councilors. “Our enemies most likely have a spy working inside my court. Still, my trust in each of you is complete, and it is my command that your trust in one another be likewise complete. We will worry about the war first and about the traitor after.”

“But my lord,” said Bishop Osfrid, his voice gravelly, “suppose that one of us is the traitor? He could rely your orders to the Danes, and then we would be finished!”

King Alfred sighed. He looked much older than he had just a day ago, the lines very visible on his face though he was still a young man. “I have no choice but to take that chance, Osfrid. I cannot do without my councilors, and God has not seen fit to reveal if one of you has betrayed me and murdered Father Leofwine. Now, Grimbold, how many men can we muster from Cirencester?”

Grimbold, old and bald and bulky, answered the king, and the next two hours were spent discussing strategy, supplies, and everything else needed to conduct a war against a foe as fearsome and godless as the pagan Danes. Then Alfred dismissed his councilors so he could pray, but he kept Cynehelm back. Ecgbald gave him a long look as he departed, and Cynehelm was left with no doubt about its meaning. Persuade him to investigate.

As it turned out, Alfred needed no persuasion. “My friend, I am afraid I have lied. My mind cannot rest while Leofwine’s killer roams loose, and we cannot defeat the Danes if they have an informer in our midst. You must be my eyes and my ears, and you must find the traitor, as quick as you can. But I do not want anyone else to know you are searching, do you understand? You must attend to your duties so that they suspect nothing.”

Cynehelm fidgeted, his hands once again in nervous motion as he answered the king. “My lord, I will do as you ask, but why me? I have no experience solving murders or catching traitors, only in keeping your records and making sure your ealdormen pay what they owe in taxes.”

Alfred grinned despite everything. “Yes, my friend, you collect my taxes, and unlike every other man who has done so, you do it honestly. You do not skim a little silver off the top, you do not intimidate my subjects into paying you a little extra. I trust you, Cynehelm. And you must find someone else you can trust, someone who can carry out this investigation and report to you. Now, it is time for prayer. Good day, and good luck.”