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Richard Plantagenet, trying and failing to attend to two things at once, lost his temper, threw a pewter mug half full of ale at a manservant, leapt up out of his chair and, flinging himself forward, stubbed his toe on the protruding end of a stone floor slab.
His furious oath, echoing up to the rafters and down again, had the effect of silencing everyone in the hall, and left even the least observant in no doubt as to the King elect's flame of mind.
`Are you all right, sire?' one of the attending clerics asked bravely.
`All right?' bellowed the King, hopping on one foot as he massaged the toes of the other, ineffectually, he discovered, since he was wearing his boots. `No, Absolon, I am not all right.' He paused, as if summarising the many causes of his discontent, and the reddish eyebrows drew together in a ferocious frown of concentration. Bishop Absolon, fearing the worst, hastily stepped back a pace. But Richard, instead of giving way to his frustration-borne anger, mastered it, returned to his chair, sat down again, and said, in a surprisingly meek tone, `Please, Absolon. Continue.'
As the priest launched into the seemingly endless reasons why Richard's coronation must take place so soon, and why every single tiny detail must be so exhaustively discussed, one or two people standing nearest to the new King noticed that, although he had tucked the communication from England inside his tunic, he had not forgotten about it. The short, strong fingers kept returning to it, blindly finding it and touching it as a man in peril grasps his rosary.
Had any of the derby surrounding him and badgering him with their suggestions, their requests and their demands known him well, this action of Richard's would not have surprised them. For the letter was from his mother, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, newly released from her admittedly comfortable imprisonment and truly free for the first time in fifteen years, was in England preparing the way for the coming of her favourite son.
Neither Eleanor nor Richard, although desiring it most fervently, had expected that Richard would inherit his father's throne. Who would have, indeed, when he was the second of Henry II and Eleanor's four surviving sons, with an elder brother who not only thrived but enjoyed the special favour of his father? Indeed, so great was Henry II's faith in his eldest son that he had the lad crowned while he himself still lived and reigned. Richard, it seemed, must content himself with the duchy of Aquitaine, his inheritance from his mother. No mean gift, certainly. Except the man who ruled Aquitaine would be a duke. Not a king.
But the Young King died. At the age of twenty-eight, full of the characteristic Plantagenet vigour and apparent ruddy health, suddenly he took sick of a fever. A fatal fever.
Henry II, grieving for his heir and his favourite, had to come to terms with the disruption of his careful plans for the secure future of his dynasty. Cursed with feuding offspring and a meddlesome wife who, far from reminding her three belligerent sons of their filial duty, actually encouraged them in their machinations against their father, grudgingly he recognised Richard — the apple of his mother's eye, damn the man! — as his heir. To the throne of England.
Six years later, Henry II was dead.
The last winter of his life was a dreadful one. He had rid himself of Eleanor and her infernal, everlasting interference by shutting her up in Winchester and putting a guard on her, but he couldn't mete out the same treatment to his heir, much as he would have wished to; apart from anything else, Richard had an army. He had forged an alliance with Philip II of France, and the two of them had been harrying Henry throughout northern France.
It was enough to make anyone depressed and weary at heart, even a king. Especially a king. Henry's long winter of hard riding in foul conditions had led to an anal fistula, badly abscessed, and he was resting at Le Mans, trying to build up his strength, when Richard and Philip attacked and forced him to flee the town. Their peace terms were a humiliation for Henry, and grief was added to bitterness when he learned that his youngest son, John, had joined forces with his brother and the French King.
He retired to his castle at Chinon, very sick, and in such pain that he could neither walk nor sit comfortably; they'd had to carry him out to sign the peace treaty. His abscess had opened, and blood poisoning followed quickly. He died on Thursday 6 July, and those who knew no better said it was from a broken heart.
At the height of the hot summer of 1189, then, Richard Plantagenet became King of England. He had been born in England — his much-travelled mother hadn't let pregnancy slow her down, and she'd given birth to Richard when staying at Oxford — but, since childhood, he had only visited England briefly. He hardly spoke English, and had only a vague notion of what the land and her people were all about. Home, to him, was Aquitaine, and his court was at Poitiers; the very name by which he was usually known in France was Richard the Poitevin.
The paramount need now was not so much to educate Richard on the subject of his new kingdom. It was to educate his new subjects about him. And on the spot was the very person to fulfil the task; energetic — even more than usual, after fifteen years a virtual prisoner — and utterly sincere in her devotion and loyalty to her son, Eleanor, in her sixty-eighth year, set about preparing the way for Richard.
She had little time. Richard was due to arrive in England in August — was even now just across the channel — and it was being suggested that his coronation should be early in September; the third, they said. Perhaps it was this sense of rush that made her normal good sense desert her, for, to general surprise and quite a lot of dismay, she announced that, in Richard's liberal and humane name, the jails of England were to be emptied, and those awaiting trial or punishment given their freedom.
The move was, perhaps, a gamble, a typical Eleanor, typical Richard, gamble. If it worked, then hundreds of genuinely grateful ex-prisoners would infiltrate English society to its depths — literally its depths — spreading the message of how wise, how Christian, was this new king. And, indeed, the majority of those pent up were imprisoned for no greater crime than infringement of England's strict and ruthlessly applied forestry laws. If it failed, though, if just one released felon abused the great gift of his freedom and reverted to his old ways, then what would be the public reaction? Would they say this Richard was a fool, believing you could release a criminal and, naïvely, that gratitude would lead to honesty? Would they say, even more damagingly, that this new reign which, so they were told, promised so much, was starting under a cursed star?
Yes. They would.
They would, and they did. It had happened.
The communication from England which Richard kept touching that hot July day in northern France was Eleanor's account of an unusually brutal murder which had just been discovered. In some area of this blasted new kingdom he was about to inherit called the Weald.
Weald. What was that, Weald? What did it mean? More to the point, where in God's name was it? His mother had mentioned some town. Ton something. Ton what? Some place she was interested in — some place she actually knew, whatever the relevance of that might be — because there was a convent there. Some abbey, on the lines of her beloved Fontevraud. What had she said about the place? That it was ruled, as was Fontevraud, by a woman?
God's boots, Richard thought, an abbey ruled by a woman.
He itched to get the letter out and reread it, more thoroughly this time. But Absolon was still droning on, and behind him three more bishops had lined up to have their say. And a papal legate was expected to arrive later in the day.
Richard sighed, trying to fix his mind on what the priest was saying. But concentration was proving elusive; he was distracted by Absolon's left hand, gesticulating in emphasis, by his beard, with a single long, untrimmed hair that sprang out from the rest, by the old man's yellowing teeth.
From the courtyard outside sounded the excited whinny of a horse, instantly answered by another. Someone emitted a laugh, quickly shushed. My men, Richard thought, are going hunting.
He stood up again, stepping down from his raised chair, this time careful to avoid the upthrusting slab. With a courteous bow to Absolon, who was standing with his mouth open, displaying several rotten teeth, Richard was about to murmur his excuses.
He changed his mind, and left the hall without another word. He was, after all, King.
He did not ride out with his men. Not, in any case, with the hunting party, whose boyish high spirits would have been as damaging to concentration as Absolon's ramblings. Instead, he summoned one of his squires and a handful of the older men, one or two knights among them, leading them off into the forest at a pace which they had to exert themselves to follow. They rode for some miles, and then, as the others loosened rein and allowed their horses to amble along beside the small stream that flowed through the woods, Richard drew apart.
He dismounted, and settled himself on a grassy bank flagrant with wild flowers. And, as his tethered horse began to tear up mouthfuls of the lush pasture, at last returned in his mother's letter.
It made no better reading this time. In fact it was rather worse, since, now that he wasn't trying to listen to two people talking to him at the same time, he could give it his full attention.
The facts themselves were repugnant. A young nun, less than a year into her noviciate, raped and murdered, throat cut, body left exposed to anyone who passed. Poor, innocent child — in fact the woman was twenty-three, but his mother liked the sound of a ringing phrase — slaughtered for no apparent reason, unless it were robbery. A jewelled cross had been found nearby, and there was conjecture that the murderer had been disturbed, frightened into throwing away his spoils.
The location of the murder could not have been more inconvenient. The victim was a member of the community of Hawkenlye Abbey, and the abbey was situated a mere handful of miles from the town of Tonbridge. With its position on the Medway, at the place where the main London to Hastings road crossed the river, any horrified gossip that reached the town from the abbey would spread like fire in a cornfield up to London. To be received and discussed by the kingdom's men of power, who would not hesitate to form opinions and pass judgement.
`And there will be gossip,' Richard muttered, 'there always is. And how can it best be contained? Who, in God's name, can advise me in my dealings with this barbaric place?'
He turned at the address, having thought himself out of earshot of the others. One of the older men stood before him — one of the knights — and, as Richard looked at him, he knelt.
`Don't kneel there, man!' Richard said impatiently. 'It's muddy.'
'Oh. So it is.' The man looked resignedly down at his one soaked knee. `Next to new and dean on,' he said, not quite quietly enough.
'I'm honoured,' Richard said laconically.
The man's head flew up. `Sire, please, I didn't mean ... Of course I would dress in my best for you! I only meant—'
`It is of no significance.' Richard waved away the excuses. He was trying to remember who the man was, and why the sight of his tall frame and tough-featured, appealing face should somehow be reassuring ... `What is your name?' he asked abruptly.
The man fell on one knee again. The same knee, either, Richard thought with mild amusement, because this was how he habitually did it, or because he would thus avoid soiling both legs of the new hose. `Josse d'Acquin, sire,' the knight said, turning his cap in his hands, then clumsily dropping it. A shame; it, also, looked new, and was in the latest fashion. A detail which, somehow, did not seem in keeping with the man. Perhaps he had made some attempt to smarten himself, knowing he would be in the company of the court set.
`Well, Josse d'Acquin,' Richard said, `I have been trying, and so far failing, to recall how you and I are acquainted. Will you enlighten me?'
`It was years ago, sire,' the man said eagerly, 'it's no surprise your grace doesn't remember, why, we were nothing but boys, really, you, your brothers the Young King, God rest him, and Geoffrey, my, he was only fifteen! And you, sire, scarce a year older! As for us, the pages and squires, well, I was one of the oldest, and I wasn't much more than thirteen.' Throwing care to the winds, he shifted his position so that his not inconsiderable weight was borne on both knees, then went on, `Back in Seventy-three, it was, sire, and you and young Henry were in a right pother with your father, God rest his soul—'
`Amen,' Richard responded piously.
`— over his refusal to give you more of a say in the running of things, in particular your own estates, and—'
`We fought together!' Memory had returned to Richard, full-blown and complete with sights, sounds, deeds and powerful emotions of a time sixteen years in the past. `We encountered a scouting party of my father's and Henry said we should make a run for it, since you and the other squires were so young and we did not have the right to involve you in something so one-sided and foolhardy, and—'
`And the lads and I said, we're with you, we want to fight, we're aching for a chance to draw blood, and—'
`And so we launched a surprise attack, disarmed and unhorsed four of them, at which the rest fled!'
`Four?' Josse d'Acquin had a humorous face, and his generous mouth was quirking into a smile. `Sire, I would stake my life on its being six.' He glanced at Richard. `At the very least.'
'Six, seven, eight, think you?' Richard was smiling, too.
`What a day,' Josse mused, sitting back on his heels.
`Indeed.' The King was staring at him, absently noting the muddy puddle water seeping into the seat of the hose and the hem of the elaborately bordered tunic. `I never forget a face,' he said. `Knew perfectly well I'd met you before, Josse.'
Josse bowed his head. `Sire.'
They remained quite still for some moments, as if suddenly turned into a painting. Some knightly illustration, with the loyal servant waiting, head bent, for the command of his lord. Of his king.
The King, in this case, was thinking. Wondering, in fact, if the vague and general pleas for help which he had been sending up, immediately before this character from the past had reappeared, might just have been answered.
Deliberately Richard stilled his mind, allowed himself to be a receptacle.
After a moment, he had, he was quite sure, received the message he was waiting for.
He reached down and lightly touched Josse d'Acquin on the shoulder. `D'Acquin,' he began, then, less distantly, `Josse. Oh, get up, man, you've got your backside in a puddle.' Josse scrambled to his feet, instantly bending into a sort of half crouch; both he and Richard had noticed he was almost a head taller than the King.
`Josse,' Richard went on, 'you're a local man? Of Norman stock, yes?'
`My family estates are at Acquin, sire. Near to the town of Saint Omer, a little to the south of Calais.'
`Acquin?' Richard ran swiftly through his mind to see if he'd heard of it, decided he hadn't. `Ah. I see. And what of England, our new kingdom over the water? Are you familiar with England?'
'England,' Josse echoed, in the manner of someone saying, a pigpen. Then, as if instantly regretting it as less than tactful, when the land's throne had just been inherited by the man standing in front of him, he said with patently false enthusiasm, `England, yes, indeed, sire, I know it quite well. My mother, you see, was an Englishwoman, born and bred in Lewes — that's a town in the south-east — and in my youth she insisted that I get to know her country, her language, her people's ways, that sort of thing.' He smiled faintly. `People didn't say no to my mother, sire.'
`I know that sort of mother,' Richard muttered feelingly. `So, England and the English hold no fears for you?'
`I wouldn't say that, exactly, sire.' Josse frowned. `There's always fear attached to the unknown. Well, not fear, more apprehension. Well, maybe not even that, but—'
`A sensible amount of wariness?' Richard supplied.
`Precisely.' Josse smiled openly now, and his teeth, Richard observed, were a great improvement on Bishop Absolon's. Then, as if remembering where the conversation had begun: `Sire? Why do we speak of England?'
`Because,' Richard replied simply, `I want you to go there.'
Excerpted from Fortune like the Moon by ALYS CLARE. Copyright © 1999 by Alys Clare. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted December 21, 2005
This is my first foray into book-length, medieval detective fiction, which I will admit is quite a change of pace from what I normally read. I got it for $2 at a book fair, though, so I couldn't argue with the price. The story revolves around a young nun who is found dead, and due to her wounds and her state of undress when discovered, it is assumed that she has been raped and murdered. The new king of England has just released prisoners as a magnanimous gesture, and the king is eager to ensure that it wasn't one of the newly paroled malcontents that did it, as that would reflect poorly on the King's judgment. Therefore, our man of action, Josse d'Acquin, is sent to the abbey to investigate. As expected, things do not go as initially thought... This was an entertaining read. The book is well-written, and does a perfectly serviceable job of introducing the main characters and bringing out their personalities. The author could have played more on Josse's alien status (he's French, in England about 100 years after the Norman conquest), but that doesn't really ever come into play. I also could have used some more descriptions of what life was like in the mid to late 12th century, as that isn't exactly my main area of expertise, but I guess in a book not too much over 200 pages, when you have multiple deaths to resolve you don't have lots of time to get into the details. So, bottom line, a very enjoyable book that could have been improved by some additional detail. For an initial story, though, it was quite good and if I see other books in the series I will give them full consideration.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
King Henry I is dead and his wife Elinore of Acquitane is freed from jail. Everyone in England awaits the arrival of the new King Richard from overseas. As a gesture of good will and to demonstrate to the common person that he is the ruler of all of England, Richard grants clemency to the prisoners in the country¿s jails. Initially, the people applaud his bold move until someone kills a novice at Hawkenylye Abbey. The people believe one of the newly freed individuals is accused of committing the crime. <P>An irate Richard dispatches one of his knights, Josse D¿Aquin, to investigate the murder that could topple his reign. Josse immediately concludes that the assailant arranged the crime scene so witnesses could claim the novice was robbed and raped when in fact, the victim was neither. Josse joins forces with Abbess Helewise in an attempt to uncover the identity of the culprit before the Holy Spirit of the Abbey is destroyed forever. <P>Readers will relish the arrival of a new crime-fighting duo on the scene especially Josse, an intellectual warrior who uses his brains to solve a crime. Though his belief that women are his equal seems a bit of an anachronism, Josse and the Abbess work so smoothly together, readers will give credence to his faith in the abilities of females. The Abbess is an enlightened thinker who is not afraid to dirty her hands by becoming involved in the secular affairs traditionally handled by males. These characters, a well designed who-done-it, and the pageantry of Medieval England turns Alys Clare¿s FORTUNE LIKE THE MOON into a fabulous historical mystery. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.