Excerpt – The Study of Murder


Oxford, England, 1374

The nymphs first. Images flowed onto the page and the writer struggled to get them all down, to convey the essence of the visions correctly. The expanding worlds, the interconnection between the spheres, the propulsion of the seed as it traveled. The feminine principle, bathed in divine liquor, dancing and playing in its showers. It was crucial that he record this as he’d been instructed, they demanded it. There must be no errors.

The light faded, and the September evening grew chill, but the writer paid no attention until the darkness grew absolute. He then lit a tallow candle and continued working, stopping occasionally to stretch cramped hands. The flame wavered in the drafts that found their way through the cracks in the roughly plastered walls as he worked on, the only sound the scratching of quill on parchment. The autumn wind gusted outside, finding its way in through the wooden shutters of the small window, but the writer continued, at times adding color to the elaborate drawing.

It was a pity his last efforts had not been accurate. These must be correct.

The silence broke with a knock. The writer at first did not hear, so involved was he in his efforts. The door opened, the noise broke his concentration and he quickly tried to hide the papers as another man entered the room.

“Working late, are you not?”

“Some simple jottings merely, a few poor scribblings of my own. Nothing that need concern you.”

“Can you take my lecture tomorrow? I’ve an appointment I dare not break.”
“On The Sentences. Yes. I should be happy to assist.”
The visitor departed, leaving the writer to his labors. He worked on feverishly, until the candle guttered out and the dark night sky outside showed a lightening in the east, along with the bright point of light that was the morning star. Then he secreted his parchment and went to deliver his lecture.

Chapter 1

“That must be Oxford, there ahead.”
I pointed out the city walls, glinting in the setting sun, to my traveling companions. Our horses neighed wearily. They too were tired of traveling.

“We must make haste, I’m thinking they’ll lock the gates soon.”

Our journey was ending but not our labors. They were just beginning.

Donald led the way. Indeed, on our journey so far Mariota and I had both often let him take the lead. His thirteen-year-old body, restless and impatient, balked at our pace. It seemed easier to let him travel ahead a bit, while we came on at a slightly more sedate speed. He galloped his horse down the road despite the crowds of people converging on the Northgate. Mariota winced, and I felt my own shoulders tense as we watched Donald nearly run down an old woman carrying a wicker cage of chickens.

“I suppose we were like that once,” I commented, trying to make light of the lad’s behavior.

“Perhaps. But I’m not thinking the monks at the Priory would have given you much chance to ride, let alone run down old women. I’m surprised the boy did not learn more restraint, those years the old king kept him hostage at Dumbarton for his father’s good behavior.”

I shrugged. “The lad was held there for two years. Perhaps that is why he is now so wild and must have both you and I to be his nursemaids while he attends the college. And with his own grandfather sitting on the throne of Scotland perhaps he feels no need to watch his step any longer.”

Mariota nodded, and managed an exhausted laugh. She reined in her horse while Donald, now well ahead, nearly trampled a man carrying his little daughter, missing them by an arm’s breadth. The man, poorly dressed, did nothing, for Donald’s gear spoke of nobility.

“How can he have such energy?” she marveled. “And such arrogance? What kind of leader will he make someday? Och, there’s nothing for it now. I want nothing more than a clean bed and some supper. And you must be tired as well.”

Mariota and I had been married but a few months, and I still marveled at my good fortune. Although, to tell strict truth, this latest journey did not seem especially fortuitous. How was it, I wondered, that we were here so far from Islay, playing nursemaid to a spoiled and impulsive thirteen-year-old?

I didn’t have to wonder long about it. Donald’s father, John MacDonald, was the powerful Lord of the Isles, and overlord of my own MacPhee clan. I served him as his Keeper of the Records, and His Lordship had ordered us to attend on his son at Oxford. And so here we were, after a journey of several weeks, nearing our goal. Both Mariota and I felt exhausted from the travel and our charge, but Donald himself appeared not tired at all by the journey.

Many travelers and townsfolk hurried into the town as the afternoon ended, and even Donald’s youthful exuberance seemed somewhat dampened by the unfamiliar crowds. I heard a smattering of languages, some Latin but more of it the less familiar English tongue, and missed the soft lilting sounds of my native Gaelic, feeling every bit a stranger in this busy town.

The trip had given both Mariota and myself some opportunity to practice our rudimentary English, the dialects of which seemed to vary greatly as we made our way south. At least Latin was spoken in the schools, and both my wife and I spoke that language fluently.

We caught up with Donald somewhat before the gates, on a broad street where a large ditch circled the town walls and carried much of the sewage of the town away. After the quiet and clean air of the countryside, it was not a pleasant smell.

“Donald,” Mariota reproached him in Gaelic, “did you not see those people you nearly trampled? You must have a care for their welfare.”

“They should not be so slow. And I did not trample them. So all’s well.”

“No, Donald,” returned Mariota, irritated. “No, all is not well. It is not well for you, a young lord, to treat poor people in such a way. Your father has put you in our care. And arrogance is a sin.”

Donald flushed with anger and opened his mouth to reply. I intervened before he could speak. “Look you, they are getting ready to close the gates. We will have leisure to deal with this later, I think, after we’ve found lodgings and eaten a bit. Now, hurry.”

And so we entered the town of Oxford, crossing through Northgate. Indeed, it was more of a narrow tunnel than a simple gate, as it passed under a two-storied building that I later discovered housed the town gaol. Inside the city proper, the broad main street was crowded, both with townsfolk frequenting the merchants, most of whom appeared to be trying to close up shop, and with many students. We passed a church on our left, then continued down Northgate Street and turned onto the High Street. I was glad we were on horseback as we crossed the drains that ran down the center of the roadway.

We found temporary lodgings without much difficulty, at an inn on High Street. We entered through the gate that stood facing the street and into the inn yard. The groom took our weary mounts and we were led to the main hall, our baggage hauled to our room above.

Travelers busy eating and drinking crowded the dining hall. The innkeeper seated us at a table and sent his wife to see to our chamber. He took our orders and then rapidly brought us some spiced ale that went down well and helped wash the dust of the road from our mouths. Our food came soon after and tasted fine enough. As we finished the meal of eel pie, more ale, another typed of baked fish and some cooked apples, Donald was all for seeing the sights of the town. The thought made my head ache. It was with some difficulty that Mariota and I, both tired, sought to dissuade him.

“But there’s still daylight left,” Donald pouted. “Please, Muirteach. Let us go and perhaps Mariota could stay here and rest, since she is tired from the journey.”

Eventually I gave in, despite my headache, and consented to go with him for a stroll. Mariota decided to accompany us as well, although I could sense she was a bit annoyed. We finished our meal and checked that our baggage was safe in our chamber, then the three of us left the inn and wandered the streets a bit. The side streets looked crowded with students. At least I assumed they were students, all young men of various ages, many of whom wore the clerical garb of minor orders. Most students took minor orders.

“Tomorrow we must find lodgings, and then you must go to Balliol and meet the masters there. But that will leave time to see a bit of the town.”

Donald grimaced. “I could well have come on my own. Many students do, at my age.”

“Aye,” Mariota put in, “but they are not young lordlings. It would not be seemly, for your rank, to be unattended.”

“Why not send me with a groom and a manservant, then?” Donald responded rudely. “I am too old to have a nursemaid.”

“Had your behavior been better, we would not be here at all,” I retorted, my jaw tightening as I spoke. “Your father was thinking that we would do well. And we are far from being nursemaids.” I protested perhaps a little guiltily, as I had often had that same thought. “But we will have plenty of time tomorrow to get settled a bit.”

“I’m thirsty,” Donald announced as we passed a tavern. “Let’s stop here and have some wine.”

The tavern looked pleasant enough. The wooden signboard, well painted, bore a picture of a green man leering out from between two trees. I glanced at Mariota, who shrugged hopelessly and then nodded. So we went in.

It was a fairly large room with several tables and benches, busy already this evening with a clamor of students and others. The atmosphere smelled pleasantly of wine and the rushes on the floor looked relatively fresh. The tavern keeper, a stout dark-haired man, saw us seated and his daughter came to take our order. She was a lovely lass with curly blonde hair, large brown eyes and a shapely figure, which Donald seemed to appreciate. She gave her name as Jonetta, when Donald asked her, and said her father was Abraham Jakeson.

The noise in the hall grew louder when several more youths, with their heads tonsured in the style of clerks, entered, sat down with a collective swagger and demanded ale and claret. The tavern keeper filled their beakers and they drank quickly, then started to make advances on Jonetta, calling for her and joking with her. She laughingly fended off their attentions until one of the students, somewhat larger and older than the other youths, pulled her down beside him on the bench.

“Muirteach,” Donald hissed, “yon’s no gentleman.”

“She seems able to manage him,” I observed, as Jonetta competently pushed him away and rose. “No doubt she’s dealt with this type often enough. The town is full of clerks and students. And her father stands ready, should things get out of hand.”

Jonetta had moved away from the students, but returned quickly enough with more wine for them. I noticed she sat next to the older youth again for a moment. He said something seriously to her, and fingered a medal that she wore on a chain around her neck. She pulled away, with another laugh. But she did not seem angry.

A couple of the younger students, one with an untidy head of reddish hair and the other dark haired with a lean face, had been glaring across the tables at Donald, somewhat in the way of tomcats, and I saw the red-haired boy nudge the other with his elbow, pointing out our attire, and laugh. I prayed Donald would not notice this, and rose, hoping to leave quickly and forestall trouble.

I was not quick enough. The room was crowded and as we made our way between the tables, the dark-haired boy stuck his feet out in the aisle, tripping Donald. Donald stumbled, but recovered his balance, and upset the red-haired lad’s ale into his lap. I do not think that was an accident. In an instant the two lads were on their feet and Donald was swinging a blow at them, while the older of the students rose also and quickly tried to restrain the two younger boys.

“We beg your pardon, sirs. And lady, as well,” the older man said, holding the red-haired boy back by his tunic. “My charges are clumsy oafs, and have no sense of the size of their own big feet.” He spoke in Latin, and I replied in the same.

“And this young gentleman here should apologize as well,” I said, my jaw tight, as I sank my fingers into the flesh of Donald’s arm. “For spilling the ale all over this poor man’s tunic.”

“I shan’t apologize,” Donald hissed to me in Gaelic. “He tripped me. It was ill done.”

“Perhaps,” I hissed back, restraining my urge to give the boy a proper clout, “but you’ll solve nothing by starting a war with the English your first night in Oxford.”

“It was ill done, indeed,” the older man assented, almost as if he read our thoughts. “But perhaps we can buy you a glass of wine to atone for it. We are poor students. I am Phillip Woode, from Balliol Hall, and these two are called Anthony and Crispin. They are but bejants still and lodge nearby.”

“Balliol, you say? That is fortuitous, as my young lord here has a letter of introduction to the master there. We will be visiting there tomorrow. Donald MacDonald is my lord’s name. He is also a bejant, I believe, as it will be his first year of study. I am Muirteach MacPhee, and this woman is my wife, Mariota. We accompany him here from our home in the islands of Scotland.”

Anthony and Crispin sullenly made room for Donald on the bench while Phillip seated Mariota and myself on his side of the table. The younger boys continued glaring at each other while Mariota and I conversed with Phillip awhile. He proved a pleasant enough man, a senior student, soon to take his final examinations. We shared a glass of wine, then took our leave and returned to our inn.

The innkeeper had provided the three of us with a private chamber. Donald took the bed while Mariota and I slept on a pallet on the floor. Still, it was passably clean and both Mariota and I were tired, my bad leg aching from the exertions of the day.

“How he expects to study for his examinations there at The Green Man, I do not know,” said Mariota tartly as we spread our blankets on the pallet.

Och, white love, I’ve done a fair share of similar preparation in my day. Don’t be hard on the lad.”

“Aye, well, it looked to me that he was studying Jonetta, and not the Quadrivium,” Mariota whispered to me.

“Perhaps he was just admiring her necklace,” I whispered back. “It was an unusual one.”

“Oh, so you admired it too?” Mariota asked with a little laugh in her voice.

“Those two boys are great louts,” Donald muttered rebelliously from his bed. “And they will be my classmates. What a mischance.”

And so, amid such ponderings, we slept.


The next day dawned sunny, with blue sky. We rose with the sun and breakfasted at the inn, on porridge, cheese, apples and small ale. The innkeeper’s wife served us with a smile that put Donald in a better mood, and we then set out on foot through the town of Oxford.

Balliol College had been founded over one hundred years earlier. The Scottish heiress Devorgilla, wife of John Balliol the Englishman and mother of John Balliol, the past king of Scotland, had herself endowed the school for poor scholars, all graduate students working on advanced degrees. But we had a letter of introduction to the master of the college and it was there that the son of the Lord of the Isles and grandson of the present king of Scotland would seek his tutor.

The college where the masters and a few senior students resided was located in some three houses just outside the northern wall of the town, near the old Jewish quarter, we were told. Most undergraduate students rented beds in student tenements unconnected with the college. However, Donald was not to lodge there, nor did he necessarily need to attend all the lectures required of the students. He would have a tutor, his father had instructed, and we were to find other lodgings nearby, more suited to his station. But first we went to see the college.

We arrived, still early in the day. The tenements that lodged the fellows and masters had been procured one hundred years earlier when Devorgilla originally endowed the college. It looked as though little had been done to the original buildings since, although there was a newly built chapel and all the buildings seemed in fair enough repair.

It seemed that one tenement housed the majority of the fellows, and was called the New Hall. There was a great room there where the fellows took their meals. Another hall was known as Old Balliol Hall, where the masters and a few senior students resided. The college also owned several lecture halls within the town walls, on School Street, where many of the masters gave lectures, and another tenement nearby, which rented rooms to undergraduates. It was there that Anthony and Crispin lodged.

The gatekeeper, an old man bent nearly double, demanded our identities, glared a moment and then refused Mariota entrance. Women, it seems, were not allowed in the school, for all that a Scottish princess had founded it. The gatekeeper bade her wait in the back garden while Donald and I were ushered inside one of the three houses that made up the lodgings of the college.

The fellows already had finished their first lecture of the day and were now at breakfast. We waited until the master of the college could receive us. I glimpsed Phillip Woode at a table with the other scholars.

“I am Master Thomas Clarkson, master of the college,” came a voice in Latin. I looked up to see a tall man, well built, of about forty. He had a resolute face and dark hair with a few streaks of gray showing in his tonsure.

“I am Donald MacDonald, filius of John MacDonald, dominus insularium, the Lord of the Isles, and grandson to Robert Steward, the king of Scotland. My noble grandfather and father have required that I study here in Oxford, and I beg you to take me as a student. This is my letter of introduction,” Donald replied, pleasantly in fair enough Latin. He handed Master Clarkson the folded parchment, sealed with his father’s great seal. Apparently the lad had learned some manners during his years as a hostage at Dumbarton, after all.

Master Clarkson read the letter impassively, although I thought I sensed some pleasure as he read. It could only be good for him to have such a noble student. Finally, he finished reading and smiled an unctuous smile at Donald. “We will be honored. I shall be pleased to guide your studies. You will lodge elsewhere?”

I nodded. “We will find suitable lodging today and Donald can start his studies in the morning.”

“This is Muirteach,” Donald said, introducing me. “He and his wife have accompanied me here.”

“You might speak with the widow Tanner. She has a fine house, rents lodgings, and lives nearby. Her house is just down Canditch, that broad street that runs along the town walls.”
I got the direction while the master continued speaking to Donald. “We have several other masters here, associated with the college. Master Delacey, Master Berwyk, and Brother Eusebius. All give lectures for undergraduates at our hall on School Street, inside the city walls. The first lecture starts before dawn, in the hall. These are the ordinary lectures, on the Trivium. Then there is breakfast, and then the extraordinary lectures are later in the morning. You are welcome to attend them if you wish, although I will be your tutor. I can instruct you individually should that be preferable.”

A tall, gangly man approached. He had yellow hair going gray, somewhat curly, and walked with the stooped posture of one who spent much time reading. He wore a much-patched Franciscan habit of gray.

“This is Brother Eusebius. You have wax tablets? And books? Phillip Woode, here, will show you where the stationer is located. And he can show you the widow’s house as well.”

I greeted Phillip again, while Donald respectfully took leave of Master Clarkson, saying he would look forward to his instruction the next day. They made an appointment to meet after breakfast. Then we left.

Phillip seemed happy enough to leave the college for the morning. We found Mariota, examining some herbs in the garden next door to the houses, and set out.

The Widow Tanner’s house was a commodious one, down a bit from the buildings that housed Balliol and facing the town’s wall. It had a large central hall and two stories on either side. She had a stable to house the horses we had brought, although it seemed we’d have little use for horses here in the town. In the back near the stable was a fine garden, and somewhat further down the street was the tannery from which her husband had taken his name. She was pleased to let us have two rooms on the second floor of her house, although the rent was outrageous. The rooms were small, and only the front one had a window. But that may have been just as well, for scents from the nearby tannery, as well as the ditch on the other side of the street, wafted unpleasantly in through the shutters.

“You’ll get used to it,” Widow Tanner assured us. I thought longingly of my farm in Islay, and even my little cottage in Scalasaig, mean as it was, swept by the clean sea breezes.

My thoughts were interrupted by the barks of a small furry reddish-brown dog. It had followed Widow Tanner up the stairs and now yapped excitedly as we looked at our rooms.

“Eh, this is Rufous,” said the widow, as she scooped the dog up into her arms. “Do not worry, sirs, he is quite friendly.”

Mariota reached out to pet the beast, which licked her wrist and squirmed out of the widow’s arms.

“He’s taken a fancy to you, Mistress. He doesn’t always take to everyone.”
As if he understood her words, Rufous growled a bit at Donald, who was loudly tromping  around the rooms.

“Behave yourself, pup,” the widow admonished the dog, which quickly trotted downstairs with her.

We settled on our terms for the lodgings and sent a servant to the inn, with the message to bring our belongings and horses to the widow’s house. We were just leaving for the stationers when I heard loud voices hailing Phillip. Looking down the street, I saw the two young students Phillip had been with the evening before, Anthony and Crispin, approaching. They saw us and stopped, glaring. Donald rolled his eyes and groaned when Phillip greeted the boys. Then Phillip led the way to the booksellers through the Smithgate, while the boys continued down Canditch to their tenement.

“Will I never escape those louts?” Donald muttered to me when we were out of earshot.

Adam Bookman had a small shop on High Street. At least they did not forbid women in the bookshops, and Mariota was elated as she viewed the volumes. Donald had brought a copy of Aristotle with him, but needed a copy of The Sentences and other volumes, as well as wax tablets, pen, and some used parchment, that could be washed clean and re-used. The smell of the parchment and the ink minded me of my days at the Priory on Oronsay. Of course his father had provided ample funds and Donald would not need to copy his books, sentence by sentence, from the lectures of his teacher.

Mariota looked longingly at a copy of Galen in Greek, oblivious to the scowls of Master Bookman. I had a feeling she would be back to purchase it soon. As we left the stationer’s and returned to the widow’s, Phillip Woode departed, leaving us to set up housekeeping in our new rooms.

The rooms were well enough appointed, and it took little time to unpack our belongings, which had arrived promptly from the inn. Donald’s room had a small desk with a chair, for study, and a bed with hangings. Our room also had a bed with hangings, a chest, and a table and chair. The widow fussed in and out, accompanied by her little dog, bringing blankets and bedding, and airing the rooms. She seemed impressed enough with Donald’s lineage and called him “my young lordship,” which he seemed to enjoy. While the good widow dithered and my wife arranged our belongings, I wondered at what had brought us here.


It had been that July that I’d heard the first of it. We’d been at Finlaggan, on Islay. John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, had completed signing a treaty I’d recorded, and then he drew me aside. “Muirteach,” he had said, “I’m needing to get Donald out of the Isles. He’s running wild here, and the latest is that he’s been making sheep’s eyes at that daughter of the MacLean’s, for all that the lass is betrothed to a MacKenzie, and her father is aye upset about it all.”

“Yes, my lord?”

“Now I’m thinking that the MacLean had better send his daughter off to the nuns on Iona, if he cannot be controlling her better. But then she is a flirt, there’s no doubt of that. And at the feast a few days ago, Donald was drinking and challenged that MacKenzie in the hall, and it came to blows. The lad—the MacKenzie it is that I’m speaking of—was knocked down and hit his head on a pillar. Your own wife’s father is saying the lad may not survive the blow. He’s lying senseless the now. You can see it was not Donald’s fault, but the MacKenzie is in a high rage—that boy was the apple of his eye. But, just to calm the MacKenzie down a wee bit, I’m wanting to send Donald down to Oxford. It will get him away from here for a time, until things blow over. And it will be a good thing for him as well.”

“How so?”
“He’ll need more education than he can get here, and it would give him some polish, and experience with the English as well. He’s of an age to go, just turned thirteen this spring. Let him make sheep’s eyes at the English girls and knock some sense into the students there in the south.”

“Yes, my lord?” I had repeated, feeling an uncomfortable sinking in my gut and a tightening in my chest.

“I’m not wanting to send him down there by himself. And, since he’s spent so much time as a hostage at Dumbarton, there’s no servant I’d altogether trust with him. He needs a firm hand.”

“Yes?” I replied, carefully keeping my voice neutral.

“Well, you are close enough to him in age, but still a grown man. You can remember what it’s like to be young. I’m not wanting to be sending him down there with a gray-beard.”

“You want me to go with him?”

“Wasn’t I just saying that?”
“But, sir, I’ve no desire to go. What of my wife?”

Och, she can go with you. She’s of a serious bent; no doubt she’ll like to see the schools. She’s a healer, is she not? There are doctors, and many learned men there. She’ll enjoy it, Muirteach.”

I tried one last time, hopelessly. “But I’ve no experience with children.”

“He’s not a child, Muirteach, the lad’s thirteen. And close to making horns on the head of the MacKenzie’s son. You’re the man I’m wanting for this task, so go and tell your wife and pack your bags.”

“But how long are we to stay with him?” I had protested. “Surely not for years. Won’t you be needing me here?” It did not do to refuse a direct command of my overlord, but I had no wish to leave Islay. And I did not think at that time that Mariota would like to go, but in that I was proved wrong.

“I’ve clerks who can write up a treaty, so do not fash yourself over that. I’m not thinking he’ll stay that long, there at Oxford, but perhaps the lad will surprise me. Perhaps he’ll show talent for learned disputations. Och, perhaps you can both stay just a few months, you and your wife. Until the spring, that should be long enough. To make sure he’s settling into his studies and all. Then, if all is going well, I’ll send Fergus or someone down to stay with him. Although he is not an overly studious lad

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