The Hunter's Tale (Sister Frevisse Medieval Mystery Series #13)by Margaret Frazer
In the summer of 1448, when Sir Ralph Woderove is found murdered near his estate, not even his family mourns. A hard, vicious man of many quarrels, Sir Ralph could have been killed by almost anyone. And though the consensus is that his soul has surely gone to Hell, Sir Ralph will continue to infuriate his heirs in death through the grossly inequitable terms of his estate’s settlement.
It falls to Dame Frevisse to escort Sir Ralph’s widow and daughter back to their manor, when another death occurs under questionable circumstances—making it clear that not all grievances have been laid to rest. And as family secrets are dragged out into the light, Dame Frevisse realizes that there is a murderer among them who will not rest until the Woderove legacy has been settled once and for all.
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Dame Frevisse awoke in the dark to the whisper of rain along the roof of the nuns' dorter and smiled to herself with pleasure at the sound. This summer in the year of God's grace 1448 had thus far been all warm days and clear skies and just rain enough to keep the pastures thick-grassed for the cattle's grazing and bring the green grain tall in the village fields around St. Frideswide's nunnery in northern Oxfordshire. In the wider world all rumors of trouble roiling around the king and among his lords were, since spring, faded away into the distance like a thunderstorm disappearing along the horizon, too far off to matter aught to anyone here. That rain was come again to the fields after almost a week without was a greater matter than the doings or not-doings of king and lords.
The rain's whispering kept Frevisse and St. Frideswide's eight other nuns company in the thinning darkness toward dawn as they went soft-footed down from the dorter and along the roofed cloister walk to the church for Prime's prayers and psalms; and the rain was still falling when they finished the Office and passed along the walk again, around the cloister garth to breakfast in the refectory; but by the time they returned to the church for Mass, only a light pattering was left, and by midmorning, after Sext's prayers, only a dripping off the eaves under a clearing sky.
Frevisse smiled up at the cloud-streaked blue above the cloister roof as she came along the cloister walk from the infirmary with a small pot of freshly made ink. Her hope this morning was for time at her desk before Nones to go a little farther with copying out the book of Breton stories promised to a clothier'swife in Banbury by Michaelmas in return for enough black woolen cloth to make two nuns' winter gowns. If she could copy through to the end of Sir Degare's troubles today . . .
She was passing the passageway to the cloister's outer door when a knocking at it brought her to an abrupt stop. St. Frideswide's was too small a nunnery to need a constant doorkeeper. Whoever was nearest was expected to answer a knock when it came and there was no denying that not only was she nearest but that there was no one else in sight--either nun or servant--and reluctantly she turned and went along the passageway to open the shutter of the door's small, grilled window and look out, asking, "Yes?"
Old Ela from the guesthall across the courtyard made a short curtsy, bobbing briefly out of view and back again before saying, "My lady, there's someone come to see Domina Elisabeth. Master Hugh Woderove, if you please."
"Kin to Ursula?" Frevisse asked.
"Her brother, he says, my lady."
Careful of the inkpot, Frevisse unlatched the door one-handed and opened it. The cloister was a place men rarely and only briefly came but it was allowed when necessary, and without bothering to take clear look at the young man standing beside Ela, she bowed her head and stood aside to let him enter, thanked Ela, shut the door again, said to him, "This way, please," and led him into the cloister walk, where she paused to set the inkpot on the low wall between the walk and the cloister garth at its center before leading him away to the stairs up to Domina Elisabeth's parlor door. There she asked him to wait while she scratched at the door and at Domina Elisabeth's "Benedicite" went in to say he was here.
Both for courtesy and in matters that could not be done in chapter meetings, the prioress often received important guests or others here, and therefore her parlor was more comfortably provided than any other place in the cloister, having its own fireplace, two chairs, brightly embroidered cushions on the window seat, and a woven Spanish carpet on the table. Besides that, because she shared her nuns' copying work, Domina Elisabeth had her own slant-topped desk set near the window that overlooked the courtyard and guesthalls, where the light fell well for most of the day. She was there now but looked up from wiping a quill pen's tip clean to ask as Frevisse entered, "Who is he? Has he said why he wants to see me?" Thereby proving that her copywork had not kept her from looking out the window to see that someone had arrived.
"He's Master Hugh Woderove, Ursula's brother," Frevisse answered. "I don't know why he's here."
"To visit her, belike." Domina Elisabeth rose from the desk's tall-legged stool and shook out her skirts. "Bring him in, please, and stay." Since no nun should be private with a man.
Frevisse saw Hugh Woderove in and stood aside beside the door, hands folded in front of her and head a little bowed, but not so low she could not take her first clear look at him as he crossed the room. He was a wide-shouldered, brown-haired young man in a short, dark gray houppelande slit at the sides for riding and knee-tall leather boots, well made but with many miles and probably years of use to them. His bow and his "My lady" to Domina Elisabeth were good enough but constrained, as if he were unused to using his manners, and when Domina Elisabeth sat in her own high-backed, carven chair and bade him to the room's other, he sat uncomfortably forward on the chair's edge, hands clasped tightly around his black leather riding gloves as he said without other greeting, "By your leave, my lady, I won't keep you long. I've only come to take my sister home."
"Home?" Domina Elisabeth permitted quiet surprise into her voice despite she was undoubtedly--as Frevisse was--rapidly wondering why. "So suddenly?"
Twisting the gloves in his hands, he started, "Our father--" but stopped, interrupted by a soft scratching at the door frame.
A stranger's arrival in the cloister never went unknown for long. Frevisse's only question had been whether Dame Emma or Sister Amicia would be first, claiming to wonder if Domina Elisabeth wished food or drink brought for him. As it happened, it was Sister Amicia, panting a little from the haste she had made, who came in at Domina Elisabeth's rather sharp "Benedicite," and curtsyed, taking an open, questioning look at their guest while asking, "Does my lady wish I bring wine and something to eat?"
"Please, no," Hugh said to Domina Elisabeth before she could answer. "We can be home early tomorrow if we leave soon."
Accepting his pressing need without more question, Domina Elisabeth said, "Sister Amicia, please bring Ursula Woderove here and give order for her things to be packed." She turned a questioning look to Ursula's brother. "All of her things?"
"What? No. She'll be back. I hope to bring her back in a few weeks."
"Enough of her things for a visit," Domina Elisabeth said, and added crisply, "Now, please," when it seemed Sister Amicia might linger in hope of hearing more. At that, Sister Amicia made a reluctant curtsy and went and Domina Elisabeth turned her heed back to Hugh, saying, "Your sister will be here soon. Can you tell me what the trouble is? Might our prayers help?"
"Yes. No. I mean, yes." Hugh paused, having lost himself among answers, drew breath, and said, smoothing his gloves over his knee, "It's our father. Sir Ralph. He's dead."
Frevisse and Domina Elisabeth both made the sign of the cross on themselves, Frevisse murmuring a brief prayer while Domina Elisabeth asked, "We knew nothing of him being ill. It came suddenly?"
"Yes. Suddenly," Hugh agreed awkwardly. "It was . . . he was killed. Someone killed him. We found him dead two days ago."
"Not . . . an accident?" Domina Elisabeth asked.
"Not an accident, no."
"But you don't know who . . ."
Domina Elisabeth stopped, caught between a wish to know and uncertainty of how much to ask, but Hugh answered, "We don't know who, no. It was in the woods. He'd been hunting. Whoever did it was well away before we even knew it had happened. We made search with men and dogs but to no use."
All of which explained the young man's unsteadiness, Frevisse thought. He had hardly had time to find his own balance and was here to tell his sister in her turn. At least he did not have to wait long; small, light footsteps were already running up the stairs, with Sister Amicia calling, "There's no need to run, Ursula," but too late. Ursula burst into the room. Wearing her favorite red gown, she was always startling among the nuns forever in their Benedictine black, but as Dame Claire had said last time the question had come up of dressing her in something more seemly, its boldness suited her, and besides, no one was truly willing to spoil her open pleasure in its bright color or forgo their own pleasure in seeing hers. But like her gown, she was sudden, and forgetful of manners and the courtesy due Domina Elisabeth, she cried out, "Hugh!," and flung herself across the room at him.
Rising from his chair, he caught her and lifted her from the floor into a great hug that she returned with her arms around his neck and hearty kissing of his cheek. He kissed her as heartily back, set her to the floor, and said the inevitable, "You've grown!"
Ursula flashed a happy smile up at him. "You haven't seen me since Christmastide and I turned eleven the morrow of St. Mark's. Of course I've grown." She poked at his belt buckle accusingly. "You said you'd come at Easter but you didn't. Nobody did."
"I only said might and it happened I couldn't. But I sent you a red ribbon for your birthday, didn't I? I did do that."
Ursula flung her arms around his waist, as high as she could reach, and hugged him again. "You did, you did. Just like I asked."
"But, Ursa," Hugh said, and the brightness was gone from his voice, warning her there was something else.
Dame Perpetua was always saying that Ursula was a quickly clever child and now she immediately read her brother's voice and pulled back from him as far as she could without letting go of him and asked, frightened, "Has something happened to Mother?"
"Not to Mother, no. She's well." Hugh moved to sit again, drawing Ursula to stand in front of him so they were face to face. "It's Father. He's dead. He was killed while he was out hunting. Two days ago."
Ursula's face went blank and her color drained away. With widened eyes, she echoed faintly, "He's dead? He's really dead?"
"Two days ago. I'm here to take you home for the funeral."
Belatedly Domina Elisabeth rose to her feet. "We'll leave you together for now. Take as long as need be. Your things will be waiting for you when you're ready to leave, Ursula."
Ursula vaguely thanked her without looking away from her brother or loosing her hold on him. Frevisse, following Domina Elisabeth out of the room, heard her ask again, "He's really dead?" with what sounded oddly more like unbelieving hope than grief, but Frevisse rid herself of that thought by the time she reached the stairfoot, where Domina Elisabeth was sending Sister Amicia to ask Father Henry, the nunnery's priest, to meet her in the church.
"Sir Ralph Woderove was not overgenerous to us but he did send that haunch of venison when Ursula returned to us at Christmastide, and he was her father. For her sake he shall have a Mass and prayers from us," she said.
Frevisse agreed that would be well and, her part in it finished, retrieved her inkpot and was at her desk on the cloister walk's north side, bent over her work, when Domina Elisabeth saw Ursula and her brother out. Keeping her eyes on her copying, Frevisse did not see them actually leave but heard, when they were gone and Domina Elisabeth was come back into the cloister, the soft rush of skirts and feet along the walk and Dame Emma eagerly asking Domina Elisabeth where Ursula was going and would she be back and who was that who'd come for her and what had happened. Domina Elisabeth told her, briefly, and sent her back to whatever she should have been doing.
Frevisse missed whatever talk came after that among the other nuns, keeping at her copying through the rest of the day save for the Offices and dinner when no talking was allowed. Only in the hour's recreation allowed each day before Compline's final prayers and bed did she hear more, when the nuns went after supper to the high-walled garden behind the cloister. The fading day was warm under a sky soft with westering sunlight, and in the usual way of things, they would have sat on the benches or strolled alone or a few together, talking and at ease, along the graveled paths between the carefully kept beds of herbs and flowers. This evening, though, while Frevisse walked slowly in company with Dame Claire, and Sister Thomasine went her usual way to the church to pray, the other nuns hurried ahead along the narrow slype that led out of the cloister walk, crowding on each other's heels into the garden and immediately clustering just inside the gateway with heads together and tongues going. There was no way for Frevisse not to hear, as she and Dame Claire made to go past them, Dame Juliana saying excitedly, "Yes! I asked the servant who came with him." Presently hosteler, with the duty of seeing to the nunnery's guests, Dame Juliana had plainly used her duty today as a chance to learn what she could from Hugh Woderove's servant. "He told me everything."
"It truly was murder?" Sister Johane asked. "Someone did kill him?"
"They did. Very much killed him." Dame Juliana was as eager to tell as her listeners were to hear. "Someone bashed his head in with a stone. They'd been hunting and he went into the woods after a dog, I think, and when he didn't come back, they went looking for him and found him dead."
"They don't know who did it?" Dame Emma asked.
"Well, they think it must have been a poacher and Sir Ralph surprised him and the man killed him. Whoever it was, he escaped clean away and that's why they think a poacher, because a poacher would know the woods well enough to get away and how to lose the hounds when they tried to trail him."
Frevisse's own thought was that it must have been a singularly stupid poacher if he chose to be there in the woods when a hunt was going on, but Dame Claire asked as they moved away, neither of them interested in spending their hour in fervent talk over a murder that had nothing to do with them, "How was it with Ursula when her brother told her, poor child?"
Cautious with her own uncertainty, Frevisse said, "I was there only at first, before she'd had time to fully feel it, I think."
Dame Claire bent to run her fingers through a tall clump of lavender. "We'll have a goodly harvest of this, it seems."
Frevisse agreed, and leaving the dead man forgotten, they strolled on.
--from The Hunter's Tale by Margaret Frazer, Copyright © 2004 Margaret Frazer, published by The Berkley Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Margaret Frazer was a finalist for an Edgar Award for Best Original Paperback for both The Servant's Tale and The Prioreess' Tale.
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I have had the pleasure of reading all of Ms Frazer's mysteries and I must admit more than once. She has uplifted my spirits when I most needed it on many, many occasions. Her wonderful semi-twisted imagination has kept me guessing to many times. Look who comes back for more! I hope to see new work when she is able. You add a little moe depth, a little more fun and more than a little more knowledge to my artistic soul. Thank you Ms Frazer!
Another one of Margaret Frazer's excellent Tales. Keeps you reading into the small hours and yet not wanting to get to the end. The author's deep research into the times, mores and customs of the medieval world makes one live and breathe in those days. Hope I never run out of her books.
Sir Ralph of Woodrim, owner of a manor house in Oxfordshire, England of 1458, is despised by his wife, his grown sons, his grandson and his young daughters. The only concern this vile man has is in the hounds and the hunt which his neighbor and friend Sir William is interested in also. One day when he goes into the woods to look for a missing hound, he doesn¿t come out. Family and Sir William find him dead, his face smashed to a bloody pulp. After the funeral services are over, his wife Lady Anneys goes to St Frideswide¿s nunnery to regain her emotional equilibrium. Not long after she arrives, she is called home again because her stepson was accidentally killed by Sir William. Dame Frevisse escorts her home and stays to give comfort to the family, but once she arrives there she finds secrets to uncover and killers to be identified. Readers who are interested in the Middle Ages will gain an interesting look into the lives of the minor gentry. Dame Frevisse can¿t stand to see a mystery stay unsolved so she does her best to learn who killed Sir Ralph, why Sir William is so interested in his deceased friend¿s family, and what is the secret that nobody wants to talk about or even think about. Margaret Frazer delivers another outstanding historical amateur sleuth tale. Harriet Klausner