The Squire's Tale (Sister Frevisse Medieval Mystery Series #10)by Margaret Frazer
Drawn from her nunnery's contemplative quiet by the domestic turmoil of a noble family, Dame Frevisse must see that justice is done when honest love and dishonest lust spawn murder.
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The spring evening was drawing in to blue darkness under the tatters of low black clouds streamingaway to the east on a warm-edged wind that promised a fair dawn tomorrow.
A tomorrow he had almost not lived to see.
Robert felt at the edges of that thought while he stood watching the darkness come, his good hand cradling his hurt one against his chest. From here at the parlor's open window in the west tower he could see out over the garden's low turf wall into the orchard's gnarl of upper branches, barren yet this early in the spring. Their black shapes were darkening into the darkness now that the last fade of sunset light was gone but Robert went on watching, not ready yet for the room behind him, for the lamplight and talk and people who had not been almost dead today. Better the darkness for just now and thinking of other things, rather than trying to belong with them just yet.
It was the orchard that brought him back to Brinskep Manor early in every Lent, to be here when the bare black branches frothed out into a sea of creamy blossoms. It was something that every time joyed his heart to the core in much the same way that first sight of each of his children had. With the children the moment passed and never came again, succeeded by the other joys they gavefrom sometimes no more than something as simple as Robin holding tightly to his hand while pretending not to be frightened of his mother's new horse or John ceasing to cry when he saw his father had mended his broken wooden sword or Tacine wrapping her arms around his neck in a hugand were the richer for coming uncertainly and unexpected. But the orchard's beauty and his joy in it came every spring, and because Brinskep was the largest of his wife's three manors, her household had always been there six months out of a year, but when Blaunche had married him those six months had run from Whitsuntide to Martinmas, midsummer to early winter. "Because that's how it's always been," she had said simply when he had asked her why.
It had been only chance that brought him to stay a night at Brinskep the first spring of his marriage, on his way to Fen Harcourt for business with Sir Walter, when the orchard had been in its full bloom. He had spent half a morning walking alone there when he should have been on his way, for once able to do what he chose because he had been travelling with only two servants and no certain time he had to be anywhere. And when he had returned to Blaunche he had, for the first time in their marriage, insisted on a change in how their lives were run, that Blaunche, still happy in having married him, had agreed to with only small protest and thereafter they were at Brinskep from sometime in Lent until almost Lammastide, then moved the household on to stay through Allhallows at Wystead Manor, then shifted to Northend before winter set in, spending Christmas and the weeks afterward there until time to return to Brinskep.
The pattern was an easy and familiar one after all these years but Robert doubted he could have brought Blaunche to any such change so easily now; her pleasure in having won him was too far in the past, and she remembered too easily now, when it suited her, that the manors she had brought to their otherwise landless marriage had been hers before they were his. And he was weak, he supposed, still to think of them that way, too, when by law whatever property a wife held became her husband's when they married. That Blaunche had decided on him for her third husband and forced the marriage on him made no difference to the law: when they married, she and her properties, even those inherited by dower right from her first two husbands, had become his, no matter whether he had wanted them or Blaunche at all.
"Robert, shut the window, pray," she said from across the room behind him. "The wind is coming in."
It was, and not warmly, either, but it smelled of young growing things and the rain there had been all day and the clear day there would be tomorrow and just now Robert had a craving for anything that promised life was an ongoing thing, not something that had nearly ended for him on a sword's blade in the orchard this afternoon, but he loosed his hurt hand to reach out his left one to the shutter and pull it closed. The window was of three stone-mullioned lights with a wide seat built into the wall below it and only the upper quarter of each light was glassed; their lower portion had either nothing between indoors and out or else heavy wooden shutters painted gaily on the inside with vines and flowers. One was already shut against the night; now Robert unfolded the other from where it sat flat against the stone thickness of the wall, closed it across the gap and slid its wooden bolts into the wooden catches on the other, locking them closed and to each other.
When Brinskep Manor had been built about two hundred years before, defense rather than comfort had been the concern. It had been barons then, Robert vaguely knewbarons against the king and king against the barons and barons against each other for good measure, with no one sure of not finding himself in the middle of trouble before he had time to blink twiceso Brinskep was stone-built, with only small-windowed storerooms and the kitchen at ground level. The hall was a story above them, reached from outside only by an outer stair from the yard and flanked at its west end by a squat, three-storied tower, uncrenellated because of the cost of a license to do so but defensible nonetheless. There had been no need of defense for more than a hundred years, thank God and all the saints, and even as poorly as the war in France was going in this year of God's grace 1442, the nineteenth year of the reign of King Henry VI, there was no fear of a French invasion so far inland as here in southern Warwickshire. Timber-and-plaster buildings had long since been built around the hallyard's other sides to the gateway to the outer yard, and in the hall and tower comfort came before wariness; it was a pleasant room Robert turned to, warm with lamplight, soft with Master Geoffrey reading aloud from a book of Breton lays while Blaunche, Mistress Avys and Emelye sewed and listened.
Everything in it was familiar, from his high-backed, green-cushioned chair to the tapestry painted with some scene from the Trojan War hung on one of the white plastered walls to the scatter of the children's toys across the floor's golden rush matting, left behind when they were taken off to bed a while ago, to the women quietly busy while the household's clerk read to them, but tonight Robert was seeing all of it more sharply than he had seen it in a long while because this afternoon he had come near to being never here to see it again. This afternoon Robert had nearly been...
"Many a bold baron lay writhing in his blood, / So much was spilled the field did seem to flood...," read Master Geoffrey in his smooth, strong voice from across the parlor. The long settle in front of the fireplace that was Blaunche's chosen place to sit of an evening, with room around her for her sewing and sometimes for the children or, like now, for Master Geoffrey to be at its far end, reading aloud from the tale of the Earl of Toulous, by light from lamps burning on the tall wrought-iron lamp stand set for their light to fall evenly over the book and Blaunche's sewing both. Tonight her work was a shirt for Robin, Robert thought, because their elder son was presently being the proverbial weed, outgrowing all his clothing at once. That at least meant John had hand-me-downs for now, but what it would be to keep Tacine in dresses when she was no longer small enough to wear the smocks that had served her brothers when they were toddling did not bear thinking on.
Thinking on it anyway, Robert smiled as he bent to pick up with his unhurt hand the less-loved of his daughter's two rag dolls, abandoned when Tacine carried the other off to bed with her; but as he straightened, his hurt hand gave a heavy throb, and dropping the doll onto his chair, he shifted the hand higher and cradled it against his chest with the other one again. It was only a pair of sprained, bruised fingers, nothing worse, he reminded himself, no matter how much they hurt. "Didn't you ever learn," Ned Verney had jibed at him while binding the small splint to them, "that it's better to catch a blow on your dagger blade than with your knuckles?"
"Better on the knuckles than not at all," Robert had jibed back. "And best not to be in the way of it at all."
They had both of them been making light of the hurt because if the rider's blow had not been as awry as Robert's, there would have been no making light about anything at all. As it was, the man's horse, being a palfrey instead of battle-trained, had misliked finding itself among shouting men and sword and dagger blades and women's screaming and had shied as its rider had struck down at Robert and Robert had flung up his dagger in defense, so that the sword's pommel instead of its blade had struck his dagger hand and he still had his fingers.
The trick, he reminded himself, as the throb lessened to ache, was to keep his hand raised higher than his heart so it did not gather blood, and mindful of that, he shifted Robin's wheeled horse to safety under a chair with his foot instead of bending to it. He also considered reminding Emelye she was supposed to tidy things away tonight since Katherine was helping see the children into bed, but Emelye, the younger of his wife's two maids-in-waiting, was finally quiet after a few hours of sobbing and exclaiming, as if the danger this afternoon had been hers instead of Katherine's, and was sitting on a cushion on the floor near the settle intently sorting bunches of embroidery threads by color; on the principal of letting sleeping dogs lie, Robert preferred to leave her quiet, but too restless himself to sit, he paced past his chair to the solar's far end, then back to his chair, then around the small, tall-legged table, with its evening plate of wafers and pitcher of spiced perry. He was neither hungry nor thirsty, but he would maybe after all take the valerian tonight, because if he was unable to walk away from his thoughts now, he assuredly wouldn't escape them in bed and even more assuredly did not want to lie awake with them for company. Nor with his hand's pain, come to that. He hadn't even felt the pain until everything was over, until the men were spurring away and he'd been certain Katherine was safe...
"Robert, will you sit, please?" Blaunche said with the slight edge that made it demand rather than request.
Robert bent and straightened too swiftly for his hand to resent it, taking up Tacine's doll and then sitting in his chair, seeing but not caring about the upward-through-her-lashes look that Emelye gave him in hopes he would sit nearer to her. Had Blaunche noticed yet the silly girl had decided to be infatuated with him now? Last year it had been Ned she fluttered at, and over Christmas it had been Benedict, and now for no good reason except lack of anyone else, Robert supposed, she had set her girlish heart toward him these past few weeks. He could only hope Sir Walter would find a husband for her soon to take her off their hands, and ignoring her sidewise looks at him, he set to straightening the doll's dress and tidying its hair.
"...I near die of grief. Dear Lady, grant me your love, / For love of God that sits above...," Master Geoffrey read on. The duties for which he was paid were in the main the daily tediousness of writing letters, keeping manorial records in order, and checking over accounts of in-come and out-go between the main audits at Easter and Michaelmas. Besides all that, the year or so he had had of legal studies was of late proving useful in the matter with the Allesleys wanting back the dower land Blaunche had been wrongfully given by her second husband, and certainly evenings had been more pleasant since he had joined the household two years back with his good voice for reading and a feel for the words. In addition, when reading was not wanted he made easy conversation. None of all that would have been enough, though, if Blaunche had failed to like him. Their last clerk had left because, he had said, he'd not take being screamed at by any woman over anything and assuredly not when the fault wasn't his. Robert, knowing the fault had indeed not been his, had paid him half a quarter's extra wages and recommended him to Ned who had hired him and since then thanked Robert for the favor rather too often.
Across the parlor Blaunche burst out her raucous laugh at something in the story, and Robert's unhurt hand tightened on Tacine's doll before he could stop himself. One of the first things he had disliked about Blaunche had been her laugh, even before he had known what she intended for him. She was a Fenner, with Fenner family looks and Fenner family ways enough to have put him off her even though he was a Fenner, too. Raised in his cousin Sir Walter Fenner's household, he had been serving as a squire there in his young manhood when Blaunche first noted him. As the landless son of a landless younger son, with no likelihood of ever rising higher in life than service in someone's household, he should have been grateful when she took a fancy to him. Older than him by only six years, twice widowed and holding the wardship of her eleven-year-old son Benedict, her second husband's heir, she had quite sufficient properties to support another marriage and no one could see but what a piece of luck it was for Robert when she decided she wanted him for her next husband.
No one but Robert.
But he had had no true choice in the matter. Blaunche was a closer cousin to Sir Walter than he was, and far more in Sir Walter's favor, and Sir Walter had bluntly pointed out to him, first, what he would gain by marrying Blaunche and, next, that if he did not marry her, he would have nothing, not even his place in Sir Walter's household.
"Nor hope of place in anyone else's," Sir Walter had added cheerfully. "I'll see to that."
He would have. Sir Walter was a man who enjoyed both making threats and carrying them out, and Robert had been left with only the choice of being Blaunche's husband or a beggar.
"Robert, please sit down."
He realized he was on his feet again, pacing again, still restlessly untangling the doll's hair while he did, but was saved from having to sit again by cheerful voices on the stairs warning that Ned and Benedict were returned from taking the children to Nurse at bedtime.
Ned, like Robert, was a minor member of widespread family, the Verneys in his case, but unlike Robert, he had inherited a manor from his father just to the north of Brinskep and made a quietly profitable marriage of his own choosing with a Coventry merchant's daughter. Meeting during Robert's first year of marriage, while settling a quarrel between their bailiffs over a fishing place in the stream between their manors, they had fallen easily into friendship, with much going to and fro between their manors and Ned presently here for a few days together, his wife gone to Coventry to her sister's lying-in and his company welcomed by Robert who paused to put Tacine's doll under his chair with Robin's horse, wondering as Ned followed Benedict through the narrow stairway door why Katherine was not come back, too, but only asking as he moved to the table to pour them some perry, "You saw them into bed?"
"We saw them into bed," Ned agreed, "and they nearly saw me into my grave."
"You're too indulgent with them, Ned," Blaunche said. The woman who would send them to bed every night with too many sweets in their stomachs if she was given the chance, Robert thought. "They need a firm hand, believe me."
"It's not indulgence," Ned protested, taking the bowl Robert held out to him. "It's survival. My ungodly godson demanded three stories ere he'd let me leave or he'd not go to sleep, he said."
"Extortion, plain and simple," Benedict said and added, "Thank you" as he took the perry Robert next poured for him.
"It's Robert's doing," Blaunche said. "He too often spoils them at bedtime."
"What made it worse was that I've but two stories in my head," Ned went on, "and it would have been desperate with me except Benedict had a third."
"John protested they already knew that one," Benedict said, "but Ned pointed out that Robin had asked for three stories, not three new ones."
"You didn't!" Robert said at Ned. "You teach him to see things that way, he'll turn into a lawyer."
"There are worse things to be than a lawyer," Ned answered.
"Not at bedtime," Robert returned.
"Even if my brother is one," Ned added thoughtfully as Emelye asked, "Where's Katherine?"
"Gone to brew something for Robert," said Benedict. He looked to his stepfather with belated concern. "How's your hand hurting now? Badly?"
"It aches is all and that will pass."
"Benedict, come sit here with us," Blaunche said, tapping at a floor cushion with her foot. "Geoffrey has just reached where they're killing the child to make the empress seem adulterous."
Benedict went to fold his long legs under him and sit on the cushion beside Emelye's who smiled on him and he obligingly smiled back. Above them, Master Geoffrey took up reading again and Blaunche held up her own bowl to let Robert know he could refill it. Robert did but was thinking more of Benedict who had been old enough when Robert and Blaunche had married seven years ago to go into someone else's household for training as was the usual way, but Blaunche had claimed his stepfather could train him as readily as anyone else, indeed should train him so they could come to know each other. Despite she also claimed she gave way to her husband in everything, Robert had even then known better than to refuse her desires and after all it had worked out none so ill. He and Benedict liked each other, as it happened, and Benedict delighted in his small half brothers and half sister who in return delighted in him and that could only be to the good in future time.
But time was comeand more than comefor Benedict to have more life of his own than his mother was willing to give him, and only this morning, after some few weeks of careful wooing, had Ned managed to win Blaunche's promise that after Easter he could take Benedict into his household for the three years more until Benedict came of age to take possession of the manor he had inherited from his father. Though he and Ned had agreed to it beforehand, Robert had kept well out of it, not certain what twist Blaunche would put upon him supporting Benedict leaving her, but was pleased for the boy, who had spent much of the rest of the day telling everyone who crossed his pathwhich meant almost everyone heard it several times over because Brinskep was not that big a manorof his good fortune. Robert had watched him with an inward smile, wondering if he had been that young himself at eighteen years but unable to remember; and afterwards, this evening at supper, listening to Benedict make plans with Ned, he had thought what a pity it was that it had not been Benedict instead of him who had kept that young fool Will Hayton and his two friends from carrying Katherine off this afternoon because to have rescued a damsel in distress would have made the boy's day complete.
But the thought had made pain twist deeply into him somewhere behind the breastbone because, in all bitter truth, he was glad he had been there instead of anyone else, glad he had been the one Katherine had clung to when it was Over.
He jerked his mind away from that run of thought, his arm jerking, too, splashing the perry he had been pouring for himself off his bowl's rim. He set the pitcher down quickly but beside him Ned was already wiping up the spill, saying, "Go sit. You've had more of a day than does you good."
Robert took the excuse and his bowl of perry and went to sit in his chair again, with no need to feign weariness. Coming to sit on the cushioned stool opposite him, Ned asked with a nod at his hand, low-voiced for no one else to hear, "Still hurting?" then answered for himself, "A stupid question. Of course it's still hurting. How badly?"
"Not much. Only in spasms. I just hope young Hayton's head hurts as badly," Robert said, meaning it.
"His head? All you had was your dagger and he never fell off hishorse. How did you come to hit his head?"
Robert grinned. "I didn't but I saw him run it into a tree branch as they rode off."
"Not hard enough."
"Not nearly hard enough. But then again, I wouldn't want to have him dead and on my hands so it's probably just as well."
"He's that thickheaded it would likely take more than an apple branch to do him much damage."
Robert made an assenting sound to that and took a long drink of the perry, still warm and the better for the cinnamon, ginger and touch of nutmeg Blaunche had stirred in. Among her virtuesand she did have themwas a sure way with spiced wine, ale, cider and perry.
"What happened today," Ned said, still low-voiced, "you know the Haytons wouldn't have dared against a Fenner even three years ago."
"I know," Robert said. The certainty of it had been a grim undercurrent to his thoughts all evening, little though he wanted to think or talk about it. The Fenners had been a power in this part of the midland shires for almost fifty years now. Lord Fenner had supported Henry of Lancaster's successful bid for the throne against King Richard, and the family in almost all its various branches had flourished ever since, never among the most powerful but always near enough to them to profit and to be left alone by lesser men such as the Haytons until now.
Henry of Lancaster had been followed to the throne by his son King Henry V who had reopened the long war with France, won glory at Agincourt, and made in England a peace so strong that even after his death and the succession of his infant son to the throne, the high lords had mostly worked together at governing well. Only of late and for no good reason that Robert could see, with the perils of a long minority finally over and Henry VI at last come of age to take royal power into his own hands, the steady government the lords had kept so carefully balanced through the years of Henry VI's minority was somehow beginning to uncenter and the Fenners' secure place beginning to fray with it. Since Lord Fenner had grown too old to be active at court or parliament, Sir Walter was the busiest of the family at politics and if he was losing place and influence, then so were those connected to him, even as minorly as Robert.
That was why young Hayton had dared the attempt against Katherine. She had been barely twelve, an orphaned heiress, when Sir Walter had given her and her wardship into Robert's hands. "You've done well by LadyBlaunche," he'd said. She had lately birthed Robin, their first son. "But if you go on doing well like this by her you're going to need more money in hand. This Stretton girl is mine to give just now and I'm giving her to you. Put off selling her marriage until she's nearly of age and you'll have the profit off her properties for years and then the price of selling her marriage on top of it when she's old enough."
She was old enough now, and if Will Hayton had succeeded in carrying her off and forced marriage on her, it would have been at Robert's expense, her properties as well as Katherine going to the Haytons without their need to pay Robert anything without he undertook costly legal work against them. Will Hayton's father had probably set him on to do it because the profit balanced out against the risk of whatever trouble the Fenners might make about it afterward and, as Ned said, three years ago that trouble would have been considerable. Now...
"Sir Walter has held too long to Lord Beaumont," Ned said. "Beaumont is slipping out of the center of things."
Ned ever had more interest in politic matters than Robert did, complained he could talk about them forever and get no more than a nod from Robert, and it was with knowing he would take Ned by surprise that Robert said, "The way things are shaping of late, Sir Walter would do better to shift to the earl of Stafford and the sooner the better."
Ned, satisfactorily startled, set his bowl down on the table beside him and leaned toward Robert with a sudden, shrewd glint in his eyes. "You've been thinking about it after all, have you?"
"After you wouldn't shut up about it last year while I was here, how could I not?"
"He has a sound place in the royal council and power in this part of the country."
"North of here. Most of his power is in the north of the shire and over into Staffordshire. This side of the shire, I'd say it's Grey of Groby we should go with."
"His holdings are much in north Warwickshire, too."
"And Leicestershire," Ned quickly pointed out. Just over the Warwickshire border eastward. "But he's looking for a wider foothold and there's no great lord here abouts in Warwickshire to block him. Just minor families like us with enough land to matter who ought to be looking for a lord to ally with before things go worse."
Robert frowned. "You really think it's going to worsen? This shifting apart of power?"
"What's to stop it?" Ned asked back. "King Henry?"
"He's young yet. He's still feeling his way. We have to wait it out, is all. He'll steady to things soon."
"He's twenty years old this year. By then his father had fought and won the Welsh war."
"That was a different time. Nor it's not fair to judge a man by what his father did, for good or ill." And before Ned could make answer to that, Robert added, "Besides, young Warwick will be coming into his own soon and take up the slack his father lefthereabouts."
"I've heard stories about our young earl of Warwick," Ned said glumly, reaching for the perry again.
"From Ralph?" Ned's younger brother was a lawyer in the Court of Common Pleas at Westminster, and taking the chance to divert the talk, Robert asked, "How are things going for him?"
"He still spends more than he makes and wants me to make up the difference," Ned grumbled without sounding either worried about it or angry. He and his brother had an easy trust between them that showed itself in casual scoffs that cast Ralph as the spendthrift younger brother thrust adrift to make his way in the hard world as best he could while Ned as the elder and heir worked himself to death, according to Ned's version, or was bogged so far down in country mud he could hardly see overhis sheep's backs, according to Ralph's. "He says he has a likely marriage shaping, though," Ned said.
"Another one?" Robert asked. These past few years Ralph had been on the verge of making a marriage rather more times than Robert had bothered to keep count of.
"One of them has to actually happen one of these times," Ned returned cheerfully. "This time it's a London draper's daughter."
Robert formed a soundless whistle. "That would be to the good, if the father's unindebted."
"He is, or Ralphwouldn't be looking at her. I gather there's a house in Cheapside, a partner in Calais, and some land out Holborn way. The girl would have the Holborn land for dowry and somemoney with it."
"Any brothers? Sisters?" Who would have share in whatever eventual inheritance there might be.
"Two sons, no sisters."
The stairway door opened to Gil's back coming in, his voice following after because he was talking to someone below him on the stairs. Despite his claim that Blaunche's waiting-woman Mistress Avys ran him to rags with idiot errands and snored at night into the bargain, he was growing plump with wooing Mariena in the kitchen and was just now explaining the virtues of a walnut-garlic-pepper sauce for stockfish over a sauce of vinegar and pepper while not paying enough heed to the covered goblet he was carrying, and as Katherine followed him into the solar she put out a hand to steady it upright.
"Thanks, my lady," said Gil. "You see, it's because the walnuts and garlic work with the fish, while the vinegar only works at it..."
"Gil," Katherine said, with a small nod toward the room still behind him.
Reminded he wasthere for more than talk, Gil broke off, turned, and bowed to the room in general though mostly to Robert. When Robert after his marriage to Blaunche had found himself in need of his own manservant to see to him, he had taken Gil out of a place in Sir Walter's household even lowlier than his own had been. More used to serving than being served, Robert had been awkward over the change for longer than Gil had been but Gil had finally trained him towhere Robert knew he would be fairly lost without Gil's cheerful overseeing of his needs and wants, even ones he did not know he had until Gil had seen to them. Now, to Robert's questioning look at the covered goblet he carried, Gil said, "Something to help you sleep, sir." And added before Robert could protest he did not want it, "My lady Katherine brewed it, sir."
Headed off from refusing the drink, Robert looked to Katherine come to stand beside Gil, smiling at him as if she knew what he had not said as she held up a fist-sized, towel-wrapped bundle and said, "A poultice."
There had been no reason to turn down the offer of her wardship when Sir Walter had made it and perfectly good ones for taking it, nor had the little scrap of a girl who had been delivered to them one early summer day given any trouble to make either Blaunche or him regret having the raising of her. Reasonably biddable, she had learned what she was supposed to learn and moreover been glad of the learning, unlike Emelye, taken on because her mother and Blaunche were great good friends and who learned anything only perforce and forgot most of it soon afterwards. Katherine both learned and remembered and for extra measure
was patient with Blaunche's headaches, kind with the children, liked by the household, and good company at almost anytime.
But when Robert had not been noticing, she had grown past being a little girl into the beginnings of womanhood, and when he had noticed, seeing her dancing in the hall one evening at Christmastide last past, with ribbons in her hair and bells tied to her sleeves, laughing up at Benedict, he must have made a sound or movement because beside him Blaunche, sitting the dancing out because she was queasy in her first month of another childing, had asked him what was the matter.
Still a little blank with surprise, he had answered, "Katherine. She's grown."
Blaunche had laughed at him. "Of course she's grown. That's why I've been saying these six months past that it's time we looked out a husband for her."
In all fairness, she had indeed been saying that but Robert had not been listening, certain it was surely too soon to be thinking of Katherine's marriage. Only that Christmas evening, seeing her laughing, dancing, for once forgetful of duties, with Benedict's admiring gaze on her, had he realized she was no longer a little girl but a young woman, a lovely young woman, and since then had spent bitter time trying to forget she was because he had no business thinking and feeling what he thought and felt when he remembered it.
But now she had drawn a stool close to his chair, was sitting beside him, the poultice in her lap, reaching for his hand, and he asked, "Where's your Mistress Dionisia gone to?" Katherine's own waiting-woman who, like Emelye, had been in the orchard with Katherine at the attempt to seize her but, unlike Emelye for whom screaming had sufficed, had joined with Katherine in making trouble enough to keep Will Hayton from laying hands on her until Robert reached them. Since then she had followed close on Katherine wherever she went, as if another attempt inside the manor's very walls was likely, and Katherine smiled as she began deftly to unwrap the bindings holding the splints to Robert's fingers. "She's gone to make certain Master Skipton has seen to all the doors being locked."
"Oh-oh," Robert said because Brinskep's long-time, much-trusted steward would take ill that doubting of his duty.
"Oh-oh, indeed," Katherine agreed. "She's already reminded him thrice this evening to be sure it was done." But Katherine was more concerned with Robert's bared hand, lifting it to have close look at its bruised swelling.
Robert, preferring not to have close look, looked at the top of her head instead. Because she was unmarried, her braided hair, falling to below her waist, was uncovered, the lamplight finding chestnut sheens in its darkness, and from when she had been in his arms this afternoon he knew it smelled of camomile and was grateful now to be distracted from his thoughts as she said, "Pray, pardon me for being quick with this, but I want to put the poultice on while it's still warm. It's mostly artemisia to lessen the swelling and bruise wort against the bruising."
"And when, pray tell, did you learn about poultices?" Robert asked, deliberately teasing her the way he had since she was small and came to tell him of any newly learned skill.
"Mistress Avys says everywoman should know herbs and how best to use them." Katherine paused, to look up at him from under her lashes as she added sweetly, "On chance there's ever need to poison someone."
"Mistress Avys never said anything of the kind," Robert returned with pretended sternness.
"No," Katherine granted, returning to her task. "Not about the poisoning. Still, it's a thought."
Robert tried to bend his hurt fingers and winced with the pain.
Katherine clicked her tongue at him and Ned said unsympathetically, "What did you think it would do, Robert?"
"I'd like a little more pity here, please," Robert complained.
Gil, waiting patiently the while, took the cover off the goblet and held it out. "Here. This'll be better than pity. The wine's strong enough, you hardly taste the herbs or whatever she's put in."
"And how would you know that?" asked Robert.
"I had a sip to be sure it was safe. Better safe than sorry, sir."
"Better drunk than dry," Ned murmured into his own drink.
Gil, who was never drunk except at holidays and Ned and everyone else knew it, ignored him with great dignity.
Robert, holding in a smile, took the goblet and drank a little. The poulticea greenish-gray mess on a strip of waxed clothwas laid open on Katherine's lap now, and tenderly, the way he had seen her tend to one of the children when they had a scrape or were ill, she lifted his hurt hand, saying, "I'm wrapping your whole hand for the night and that will keep it rigid enough. The splint can go on again in the morning."
As she set his hand carefully into the herbs, he made a small grunt of pain but when she looked up at him, concerned, he gave a slight shake of his head. "The warmth surprised me, that's all."
She looked into his face as if doubting him but then bent to her work again and was winding the last binding strip around the poultice as across the room Master Geoffrey neared the end of the story, "He wedded that lady as his wife, With joy and mirth they led their life twenty year and three, / And between them children had fifteen..."
Blaunche broke out in her loud, raw laughter again. "Mirth for someone!" she said. "But I doubt the lady was laughing much after the first five or so!"
Benedict, Mistress Avys and Emelye laughed with her. Katherine, with no sign of listening, tied the binding in place while Master Geoffrey finished with, "Here ends the tale of the Earl of Toulous," and closed the book.
"Well done, Master Geoffrey," Blaunche said. "Thank you."
She held out her hand to him and the clerk rose to his feet to take it, bow over it and kiss it with the courtly grace she particularly enjoyed and Robert had never been able to manage. Vaguely, Robert wished he could raise even a small stir of jealousy but could not. Blaunche encouraged men to notice her but it was only a game she played. Nothing more than smiling and the kissing of her hands ever came of it, and Robert wished that what he felt for Katherine was as simple, instead of simply sin.
But with the story's end the evening was ended, too, and Katherine quickly tidied bandages and splints away until tomorrow while Ned who would sleep in the solar tonight instead of riding home in the dark and Benedict and Master Geoffrey who had their own rooms across the yard made their good nights, leaving as Mistress Dionisia came in and went with Gil into the bedchamber off the parlor to bring out from under Robert and Blaunche's bed the mattresses she and Katherine and Emelye would sleep on in the parlor, while they fetched their bedding from a chest along one wall.
Robert, tired into his bones and his hand aching from being handled, only waited until they were out of the bedchamber before withdrawing with only the briefest of good nights into there himself, where Mistress Avys was now pulling out from under the great bed the truckle beds she and Gil would sleep on, to be at hand if their lord or lady needed anything in the night. With Gil to help him, he readied for bed, too tired to make much of it and hoping that somehow Blaunche, too, would be too tired for even talk tonight.
She was not. Undressed, her face, hands and feet washed and rubbed with lotion, her hair unpinned and combed out by Mistress Avys, she came finally to bed ready to say what she had held back from saying all afternoon and evening. Robert, lying with his hand as comfortable as might be on a pillow between them and halfway to sleep on the quieting tide of the medicined drink, tried to feign deeper sleep than he was in as Gil drew the curtains closed around the bed but that was an outworn ploy or else Blaunche simply did not care because, not even bothering with lying down, she leaned over him and whispered, not softly enough to keep anyone beyond the bed-curtains from hearing, "It's going to go on happening, Robert. You know it is. Today you were hurt because of it. Who knows what will happen next time? It's only going to be worse from now on."
"We'll keep closer watch on her after this," Robert answered, not bothering with opening his eyes or whispering. "It's all we can do."
"It's not all we can do," Blaunche said forcefully. "What we can do is have her married and the sooner the better. Benedict..."
Robert jerked over onto his side, away from her, jarring his hand into pain that would keep him awake for a long while more, and on the pain he snapped, "Before we deal with anyone's marriage, we're going to have to deal with the Allesleys."
He no more wanted to talk about the Allesleys than he did about Katherine's marriage but it was the only sure diversion of which he could think and Blaunche took it, sitting rod-upright and exclaiming at him, "Don't talk to me about the Allesleys! The Allesleys can rot!"
"Northend is theirs." Robert started along the well-trod track again with no hope she would heed him anymore than she had the other times he had said it to her, but if it kept her off Katherine's marriage and Benedict...
"The manor of Northend is mine and mine it stays!"
"It wasn't your husband's to give you for dower. They're not going to let the matter go. The manor is theirs..."
"And they want it back and recompense into the bargain, yes, I know," Blaunche snapped, "but they're not getting either. Not from me and not from you. I'd go to my grave first." She abruptly fell back onto her pillow, jarring the bed and his hand again but her voice turning suddenly to reasonable. "And don't think I don't see what you're doing, Robert. You're trying not to talk about Katherine's marriage but no matter how much we make off her lands by the year, you have to see she's not a child anymore and won't we look the fools if we lose her marriage the way we almost lost it today? Especially when all we have to do to make an end of it is marry her to Benedict. Listen to me on this..."
Reprinted from The Squire's Tale by Margaret Frazier by permission of Berkley Pub Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 Margaret Frazier. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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In 1442 in the nineteenth year of the reign of King Henry VI, the war with France is going poorly, but inside England, for the most part, peace rules the land. The St. Frideswide nunnery reflects the overall state of England, enjoying the prosperity that has occurred since Domina Elisabeth became Prioress. One of the nuns Dame Frevisse has relished her two decade stay at the convent where she avoids earthly concerns whenever possible. Unfortunately, Frevisse is forced to go out into the world when she and another sister are asked to accompany Katherine and her guardian to Brinskep Manor, land controlled by Lady Blaunche and Sir Robert, but contested by the Allesley family. Sir Robert agrees to arbitration knowing he really does not own the land, but the pregnant Blaunche desperately wants to keep it. Katherine wants to do right by Robert who cared for her since she was a child, but Blaunche interferes seeking a match between her son and the former. Tempers flare leading to something nasty occurring with Frevisse on the scene to insure justice happens. Readers will savor the taste of fifteenth century England after reading the fabulous SQUIRE¿S TALE. Arbitration is beginning to supersede minor battles as a sense of enlightenment shows that peaceful settlement of disputes is good for everyone. Dame Frevisse retains her freshness and authenticity in her tenth tale as fans will believe she is both a nun and an amateur sleuth. Margaret Frazier¿s latest story is another triumphant medieval mystery. Harriet Klausner
This is one of several Frazer books I have read in the past two years. This book can be a little tedious in parts and the ending was no real suprise. So, if you are looking for some light reading this may be the book for you; otherwise, try Pallister or Eco for more a mentally engaging mystery.