About the Author
C. B. Hanley is the author of the Mediaeval Mystery series.
Read an Excerpt
A Mediaeval Mystery
By C.B. Hanley
The History PressCopyright © 2016 C.B. Hanley
All rights reserved.
Conisbrough, late July 1217
Edwin hadn't thought that he'd ever be comfortable enough in the earl's presence to be bored, but apparently he'd been wrong. Currently his lord was droning – there was simply no other word for it – about fishing rights to his rivers, or something, and Edwin was trying not to doze off as he leaned back against the cool stone wall of the council chamber. He didn't care about fishing rights. Since he'd heard the devastating news that Alys was already married, he'd had no interest in anything. All his previous worries and fears had been about survival, about summoning up the courage to ask the earl for permission to get married, about Alys having endured and lived through the rebuilding of the city after its sacking ... the one thing he'd never considered was that she would have married someone else before he could contact her. It had only been what, two months since he'd walked out of the remains of Lincoln. Clearly she hadn't felt the same way about him. In his kinder moments he tried to persuade himself that she'd probably had no choice: a young woman – a girl – orphaned, with three younger siblings to look after, would have needed to find a protector as soon as she could. It was only sensible. Of course it was.
But in his black moments, those times when he awoke sweating in the night, when he looked into his own soul, he knew the truth: that it was because he wasn't good enough. Why would the most beautiful, most courageous girl in all the land want to marry him? He'd been foolish even to think he could have something that he wanted so desperately. He should just accept that his life was meant to be miserable. Maybe the earl would send him on another dangerous mission – and there seemed to be plenty of those about with the war against the French invaders still going on – and he wouldn't have to come back. In the meantime he just waited for each day to be over so he could lie down in the dark. Even then he rarely slept but lay awake watching the dawn unfold to herald another pointless day.
He opened his eyes to look across the chamber. There was one window cut into the keep's thick walls, and the sunlight streamed in, illuminating the dancing dust and the fleas jumping up from the floor rushes, to fall upon the desk at which sat Brother William, the earl's clerk. He held a quill in one huge, un-monk-like fist, and he was writing on a piece of parchment as quickly as he could while the earl dictated. In the shadows behind him stood Martin and Adam, the squires: Adam trying his hardest to remain interested in the subject at hand, and Martin looking as woeful as Edwin felt. The earl himself was pacing up and down as he spoke, his movements impatient as ever, the gold on his rings flashing whenever the sunlight caught them. He'd never had a proper clerk before, and he was evidently trying to catch up on several years' worth of correspondence at once. All of them had been cooped up in this room for the last couple of weeks, and if Edwin thought that his lord was trying to keep busy in order to take his mind off the traumatic events of midsummer then he kept that thought to himself.
The voice stopped and Edwin snapped back to attention in case he was about to be asked a question. Since he had gained the earl's confidence he now found that his opinion was asked on some matters, and he had no intention of being caught out. Uninterested he might be, but he wasn't stupid enough to risk the earl's wrath. But his lord was merely taking a sip of wine before continuing.
'That pile of letters there. Pick one and tell me what it contains.' He sat down and drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair.
Brother William pulled out one of the heaped parchments and examined the seal. 'From the Earl of Arundel, my lord.'
The earl grunted and raised the goblet to his lips again as the clerk broke the seal and scanned the contents of the letter. 'In essence, my lord, his younger son is nearly seven, old enough to be sent away, and he asks that you take him into your household as page.'
Edwin glanced across to see that Martin had perked up at this. Someone else in the close household. And there was an opening since ...
The earl considered. 'Hmm. I could do with a new boy who isn't a curse. But is there anyone better? Geoffrey?'
Edwin had almost forgotten that Sir Geoffrey, the castellan, was also in the room. He had been standing like stone away to one side so Edwin couldn't look at him without turning round, which the earl might notice.
'My lord of Arundel is now back in the regent's full confidence, my lord.'
The earl's fingers tapped again. 'What about Marshal's youngest?'
Edwin couldn't see, but from the tone he imagined Sir Geoffrey shaking his head. 'Ten, my lord, and already with the Earl of Chester.'
Edwin had once met William Marshal, the legendary regent, and he was surprised to think that a man so elderly should have a son so young. He must be an even older father than Edwin's own had been. But then, he had rather a lot of children, didn't he? He tried to remember his recent conversations with Sir Geoffrey. He was supposed to be learning all these things, but the maze of relationships among the realm's nobility was still bewildering.
The earl was continuing. 'And Chester himself has no sons. What about Marshal's grandsons? By his eldest daughter and Norfolk?'
Sir Geoffrey sounded negative again. 'The eldest is with his uncle, my lord, and the younger ones are, what, five and three?'
'That's no good, then. Maybe in a couple of years – I can always take another one. Very well. Arundel's boy it is then.' He waved to Brother William. 'See to it, and tell Arundel to send him to me at Lewes before St Bartholomew's Day.'
Brother William made some notes, his pen scratching. The earl stood and stretched, one shoulder making a cracking noise. 'I need some air.'
Edwin was mildly amused to see Martin and Adam tensing like hounds who had caught a scent.
The earl laughed. 'Yes, you too. Saddle my destrier and your own mounts. We should be able to cover a few miles before evening, and he needs a run.'
The squires shot out of the room like arrows. The earl turned to Edwin and looked him up and down. 'You will need some riding practice before we set off for Lewes in a couple of weeks, but not today – you wouldn't keep up. For now you can help Brother William get through the rest of those letters. Report to me after the evening meal with anything you think needs my urgent attention.'
Edwin was shocked out of his apathy. Deal with the earl's own correspondence? What if his ignorance led him to miss something? What if ...? Belatedly he bowed and said, 'Yes, my lord,' but the earl was already sweeping out of the room, followed by Sir Geoffrey.
A sigh came from the desk, and Edwin turned to see Brother William gazing a little wistfully after the departed men. He caught the other's eye and the monk shrugged. 'I know what you're thinking. But that part of my life is over.' He looked at the piles of parchment and expelled a long breath. 'Still, at least the light is good. Pull up that stool over there and we'll get started.'
Edwin sat, hoping that the worry of this task would push the other concerns from his mind. As he sifted through the letters he wondered about the little boy who would soon be joining the household. A noble, the son of an earl, but still a pawn of the great men to be moved around at will regardless of his own inclination. Edwin chose a random letter and broke the seal, reflecting that nobody had even bothered to ask the child's name.
* * *
Martin enjoyed galloping almost as much as he enjoyed weapons training. To be out of the council chamber, out of the castle, unconfined and away from all the people was bliss. He felt the wind in his hair as he urged his mount forward to yet greater speed, although he had no hope of catching up with the earl, who had let his destrier, his fierce and very expensive warhorse, have its head. Martin didn't have a horse of his own but he was riding the roan courser which was the tallest mount the castle stable afforded. He revelled in the long strides and the freedom of movement as he strove to reach his lord, although his feet were still too far down for comfort. Maybe one day, when he was a knight and had some money of his own, he'd find a horse that was large enough ... but he was still only seventeen, so that day was a long way in the future; he'd have to make the best of things for now.
The earl had paused and was waiting for them to catch up. Martin slowed to a canter and then a trot before reining in, sweating now that the air around him was hot and still. He turned to look for Adam, who was way behind on the ancient pony he'd been using since his arrival at Conisbrough a few months before. Martin watched as the animal puffed its way up to them, the earl shifting impatiently in his saddle.
'When we get back, tell Geoffrey to allocate that boy a better mount, or he'll never keep up when we head to Lewes. That old thing will serve for the new lad if it survives long enough.'
'Yes, my lord.' Adam would be glad, and Martin was pleased on his behalf. He was a good lad who did as he was told and didn't talk too much, and anyway he was surely due a growth spurt which would make the pony even more unsuitable. Martin wondered what the new page would be like and whether he'd be as much trouble as the last one. He would have responsibility for the boy and he was determined to be stricter this time around. Concentrating on that would help to take his mind off ...
The earl's voice cut across his thoughts. 'We'll race across that pasture, round those two trees, and back to this point. Adam, we'll give you a start. Go!'
Adam put his heels to the pony's flanks and was off. Martin thought to himself that his lord was right, as ever: the beast was already labouring despite Adam's best efforts. Indeed, the earl let him get nearly all the way to the trees before he told Martin to be off. Martin surged forward, moving from a canter to a flat-out gallop across the stubble of the hayfield as he chased Adam, already rounding the trees. He had no idea how much of a start his lord had given him, but he could hear hoofbeats drumming behind him. He approached the turning point and slowed, knowing that his mount wouldn't take the sharp turn at speed, and succeeded in passing close to the trees. From the corner of his eye he spotted with some satisfaction that the earl's destrier, excited by the chase, had overshot and that the earl would have more ground to make up. Then it was on to the flat for the race back to the start. Martin whooped, feeling the smile spread across his face, the movement of his muscles at one with the courser and the wind in his hair as he increased his pace and overtook Adam before he was halfway back. But the earl was gaining on him and the great warhorse flew past, clods of earth spurting up from under its hooves just as he reached the end point.
The earl reined in, laughing, looking younger than he had done for some while. 'Good, good! I think we'll call that a draw for now.' He nosed his mount nearer so he could clap Martin on the shoulder. 'Excellent horsemanship. Good man.'
They returned to the castle at a trot and then a walk to cool the horses, Martin hearing his lord's words ringing in his ears all the while. As they neared the gate Martin looked around hopefully, as he always did out of habit, before the realisation thumped into him that it was no good. She wasn't there, and she never would be again. Joanna had gone away with the earl's sister to their new home, following the Lady Isabelle's fateful wedding, and now the whole length of the realm separated them. Despite the sun reflecting off the bright white keep and into his eyes, the castle appeared grey and joyless.
His elated mood gone, Martin dismounted and took the reins of the earl's destrier as well as his own courser. He sniffed the air and realised it was nearly time for the evening meal, so he took Adam's reins as well and sent him to the hall to check everything was ready. Then he led all three horses into the stable and concentrated on brushing, currying and feeding, growling at the groom who offered to help. He needed the time to himself, and the earl wouldn't mind if he was late to the meal. Adam was perfectly capable, and the high table was an empty place these days anyway.
When he emerged from the stable he was surprised to see Brother William's back, as he stood uncertainly in the outer ward. What was he doing here? He tapped him on the shoulder. The monk turned, and Martin apologised, for it wasn't Brother William at all, but another Cistercian in a similar white robe.
'I beg your pardon, Brother. I thought you were someone else.'
The monk made the sign of the cross in the air. 'Benedicte, my son. Yes, Brother William is here at the castle, is he not? But I have come with a message for the lord earl. Could you take me to him?'
Martin considered briefly the consequences of interrupting the earl's meal. 'He's eating at the moment, Brother, but I can bring you to him afterwards. Can I offer you something while you wait? Would you like to come to the hall?'
The monk shook his head. 'Thank you, but I have no desire to eat.' He seemed agitated. 'However,' he looked towards the western horizon, 'I believe it's nearly the hour of vespers. Is there a chapel where I may say the office?'
Martin nodded and led him into the inner ward, up the stairs to the keep and then up to the chapel. The monk immediately knelt before the altar and Martin hovered uncertainly. He was hungry, and the meal would soon be over. 'Er, I'll just leave you here ...'
The monk was already deep in prayer, eyes closed and hands clasped, oblivious to his presence, so Martin loped down the stairs and over to the hall.
* * *
Edwin's eyes were bleary after looking at all the earl's correspondence, so he was glad of the opportunity to sit quietly at the bottom end of the hall and eat his meal of vegetable pottage and maslin bread. He closed his eyes for a moment, not sure if they were watering due to tiredness, the acrid reek of the smoking tallow light on the table, or something else. Thank the Lord the letters had been fairly straightforward, no urgent summons to rejoin the war – a couple of weeks ago he'd heard the earl say there had been rumours that Prince Louis was assembling another invasion fleet – or bad news about losses of life or lands. They had mainly been updates from the castellans of the earl's other castles, or requests from his vassals for permission to marry. Marry. He pushed the bread too hard into the pottage and slopped it over the table.
Once he had finished his meal he nudged Brother William, who was sitting next to him on the bench and still shovelling in huge spoonfuls of pottage and the Friday eel stew which Edwin hadn't liked the look of. 'We'd better get back so we're ready before my lord gets there.' He looked up to the almost-empty top table, where the earl sat with only Sir Geoffrey for company. Normally the meal up there took much longer, but that was when the Lady Isabelle was there, and Mistress Joanna, and often other guests as well. Neither the earl nor Sir Geoffrey were great or fussy eaters, so although it looked as though they had some fine dishes there, they were nearly finished.
Brother William nodded and took a few last mouthfuls of the stew as he stood; he reached back for another piece of bread and rammed it in his mouth as he walked. Then they made their way over to the keep and up the stairs, deep in conversation until they reached the council chamber and re-checked the correspondence which they had already sorted for the earl's attention. A small fire was burning in the great fireplace, for the stone keep was chilly in the evenings, even in the summer. Edwin took a spill and lit the candles around the room – fine wax ones in here which didn't smoke nearly so much as the rushes at home or in the hall.
He had just thrown the remains of the spill back into the fire when the door opened and the earl entered with Sir Geoffrey – no Martin or Adam, of course, as they would be eating after spending the official mealtime waiting at the high table.
The earl saw Brother William and frowned. 'How did you get here so quickly?'
Brother William looked confused, as well he might. 'I beg your pardon, my lord – I just walked over from the hall with Edwin a short while ago.'
The earl looked between him and the door. 'But weren't you just ...?' He shook his head. 'Never mind. What have you there?' He sat down.
Edwin took a deep breath and listed, as he had been rehearsing in his head all through the meal, the matters which needed the earl's attention. He was relieved when his lord nodded approvingly.
'Very clear. Right – yes to the marriage of Richard of Hooten but no to Simon of Lyndon making a match with the Bolbec girl. He'll have too great a parcel of land all in one place and I don't altogether trust him. Tell him he may marry but he'll have to choose someone whose lands don't adjoin his own.'
As Brother William was nodding and making notes, Edwin wondered about the lives of the people in the letter. He'd never heard of Simon of Lyndon, but was his intended bride someone he cared about? Had the earl just ripped apart two lovers without even thinking about it? Or was the marriage all about the land? These nobles did things differently.
Excerpted from Brother's Blood by C.B. Hanley. Copyright © 2016 C.B. Hanley. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.