From the author of the acclaimed Owen Archer books comes the first novel in a new historical mystery series set in 13th century Scotland.
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A WAKE AND A BURIAL
Dunfermline, April 26, 1297
Sleet drummed against the parchment window beside the door. Logs sizzled and popped in the fire circle. A water jug stood ready for dousing embers that might fly outside the ring of stones. After devoting so many hours to the altar cloth neither woman wished to chance any damage. The firelight picked out the colors on the long linen draped across the women's laps, a paschal lamb sitting at the foot of a crucifix, a crown of thorns in the grass beside him. Margaret leaned away from the fire, toward the oil lamp on a small table at her side, preferring its steady light for the fine needlework. Now and again she glanced up at Katherine, smiled unsteadily if she caught her goodmother's eye, then bent back over her work. Katherine did likewise. Each forced a brave face for the other. Each saw the questions, the sorrow, the fear in the other's eyes.
Roger Sinclair-Margaret's husband, Katherine's sonhad been gone more than five months. And now his cousin Jack, who had departed in search of Roger three weeks past, had been brought home in a shroud.
Margaret pricked her finger for the third time and judged it best to put her work aside before she stained it with her blood. She cut the thread and tucked her needle into a cloth in the basket at her side. Rising, she sucked at the puncture as she opened the street door, stepped out into the chill, wet evening, lifting her face and spreading her arms to the icy drizzle.
"The draft, gooddaughter," Katherine said.
Margaret stepped back over the threshold, shut the door. "It is sowarm by the fire I cannot breathe."
The unhealthy flush of her goodmother's face made Margaret feel even hotter. Nor could Katherine mask her sweaty odor despite all the lavender water she wore.
"My old bones enjoy heat."
Old bones. Katherine would not have said that before Roger disappeared. She had aged in his absence. And today she had received another blow with the news of Jack's death. It was more than the loss of a nephewKatherine had raised him as a second son.
Margaret resumed her seat, taking care not to wrinkle the cloth as she lifted it. She considered Katherine's fleshy bodyher goodmother indulged excessively in food as well as heatand judged her shoulders more rounded than they had been the past summer, the joints on her hands more knobbly. Perhaps there was more gray in her brows.
"You are not old."
"I ken my own body, lass." Katherine did not look up.
Margaret picked up her basket as if to take up her needle again, but she could not sit still. "I'll sit the lykewake this evening."
"It is over cold in that hut," Katherine protested. "I lasted but a few short prayersme, with all this flesh protecting my bones from the cold. And you are so much thinner." She shook her head at Margaret. "I cannot allow it. What would Roger say if you lost fingers or toes keeping vigil over his cousin?"
What would Roger think? Margaret could not guess. Out of their two years of marriage she could count on one hand how many months he had been home. She hardly knew him any better than she had at their betrothal. Before her marriage she had dreamed of their life togethershe would share in the concerns of his shipping business, entertain the prominent burgesses of Perth, bear children, run an efficient household, comfort Roger and the young ones through their illnesses. Instead, she was commonly alone, the burgesses gossiped about her husband's long absences, and as for children, there were nonethey had little chance of being conceived. She did not know which possibility was more frighteningthat Roger was caught up in the fighting against the English king, perhaps lying injured somewhere, or that he was away from her this long while by choice.
And since learning of Jack's violent death an even greater fear gripped herthat Jack had been killed because he was searching for Roger, which meant her husband was in danger.
Katherine moved from fretting about Margaret to reassuring her. "Celia is out there, ready to affright any evil spirits with candles." Celia was Katherine's maid.
"A member of the family should keep the lykewake," Margaret said.
She regretted her words when she saw Katherine's small frown. Her goodmother had been kind to her, welcoming her warmly at Yuletide and again at Easter, weeks when Margaret's house in Perth would have echoed with her loneliness.
"I should keep the lykewake, not a mere servantthat is what I meant," Margaret appeased. "Not that you should do it. You must ready the house for those who will come for the burial."
Katherine relented when Margaret promised to wrap herself in two mantles, her coarse plaid one over the fine wool one her goodmother had given her at Christmas.
The ground in the frosty evening yard gave Margaret pause. It was rough and slippery, sleet washing over the frozen ruts in the packed earth. The hut was not far. Light from the lantern she carried already danced on the door of the small building. But she would last no longer than Katherine if she had wet feet. She took time to strap wooden pattens over her soft, worn shoes, then she gathered her skirts in hand to cross the expanse.
Margaret slowed as she approached the hut. When she had last seen Jack he had been bright-eyed and laughing with the prospect of a journey. Her burden of dread had lifted a little with the possibility that the months of waiting, of uncertainty, might be about to end, that she would learn what had delayed Roger. At least something was being done. But if Jack had discovered anything he had sent no word before his death. Margaret knew no more than before, and now had lost the person who had seen to Roger's business in his absenceJack had been his cousin's factor, representing Roger at the port of Perth, arranging sales of the goods in the warehouses. He had also been a good friend to Margaret.
The shed was lopsided, made of mud and twigs, roofed with old thatch. When Margaret pulled at the door it stuck and she had to yank it, rattling the flimsy structure.
The maid jumped up with a cry. Shielding her eyes from the lantern's bright glow, she cried, "Who comes here?"
"It's Margaret." She fumbled at the lantern shutters with frozen fingers.
"I was feart you were an evil spirit," said Celia.
"As I would have been," said Margaret, shutting the door. "That is why we are here, to keep the evil spirits from Jack's departing soul. Though I think his soul must have passed before he came here." He had been found in Edinburgh three days earlier.
Celia hugged herself as a gust of wind from the open door blew out a candle.
"It is a night for spirits," said Margaret.
"Aye, it is." Celia lit the candle from another. "And a cold one." The mantle she wore looked warmKatherine treated her servants wellbut as Celia turned from the candle and shook out her skirt Margaret saw that it was damp from the rivulets that crisscrossed the packed-earth floor.
Margaret held out the lantern. "Take yourself off to bed. I shall watch till dawn."
"You are kind, Dame Kerr, but my mistress told me to bide until sunrise." Celia settled back down in her chair in the corner, tucking a loose strand of dark hair into her cap and patting it primly. She was a tiny woman of an age with Margaret, not yet twenty, with a pale complexion and dark eyes under heavy brows. "I'll not disturb your prayers."
Celia answered only to her mistress, and even then she was very stubborna trait tiny people often had, it seemed to Margaret. She did not bother to argue with Celia. Neither did she intend to let the woman interfere with her farewell to Jack.
The sputtering candles burning at both ends of the shrouded corpse scented the air with beeswax but could not mask the other, stronger odor of decay. Dried herbs had been added to Jack's shroud before it had been sewn shut, as was the custom, but they were no longer equal to the task.
Sewn shut. Margaret had only her brother Andrew's terse description of Jack's woundsthe slashed stomach and throat-related dispassionately. Not that Andrew had reason to sorrow, no more than for any man's death. Her brother, a canon of Holyrood in Edinburgh, had brought Jack's body home, but she doubted the two had ever spoken more than a few cordial words of greeting. It seemed to her that someone who had cared for Jack should witness his wounds. In fact, having had so little acquaintance with him, Andrew might even have made a mistake in identifying the body as Jack.
"How can I know it is him?" Margaret whispered as she stood over the shrouded figure.
"Father Andrew said as much, Dame Kerr," said Celia.
Andrew had taken his vows before Margaret met Roger and his family. He had come to her wedding, where he would have met Jack, but she did not know of another time he might have seen him. A mistake was possible. Still, the prospect of opening the shroud filled her with dread.
If she had her mother's gift of second sight she might spare herself this added grief of seeing Jack's handsome face transformed by hideous death. But though Margaret looked much like her mother, she did not have her gift. She must deal with the world more directly. She must see the body.
"Bring my sewing basket to me, Celia. Make sure that my scissors and a good needle are in it."
She saw Celia's uncertainty. "I pray you, go."
"Widow Sinclair will wonder why you want your sewing things."
"Tell her I must occupy my hands."
Celia looked doubtful, but with a nod she departed.
Once alone, Margaret knelt beside the bier and bowed her head. She prayed that God would not take offense at what she was about to do. She prayed, too, for Jack's soul. And, as always, that Roger was safe. "Bring him home to me, dear Lord."
Celia returned with the basket.
"I shall need the lantern," Margaret said. "You are free to cross back to the house if you like, though it will be dark."
Celia shook her head. "You need someone to hold the light for you if you mean to take the stitches out neatly."
"It is best that no one knows of this but us."
"I don't gossip." It was a statement, not a vow.
But Margaret was grateful. "God bless you, Celia."
"Where would it be best for me to stand?"
Margaret indicated a place near the head of the shroud. "I need see only his face."
Silently, Celia took her position. Margaret was grateful the maid asked no more questions. And why should she? It was reasonable to have some small hope that Andrew had made a mistake.
The stitches at the top of the shroud were tiny and even. Margaret worked to keep her hand steady. There was no cause to let others know she had unwrapped the corpse. As she picked at the stitches in the dim light and the cold, her sight blurred and her fingers grew clumsy. Celia took the scissors and handed Margaret the lantern.
"The lantern warmed my hands," Celia said. "If you hold it while I finish the tearing out, you will have warm fingers to sew."
The lantern did warm Margaret's hands. And when Celia stood back, proclaiming the stitches all undone, Margaret thought herself ready to look at Jack, then sew the shroud closed. She pulled back the cloth.
The sight of him shattered her. Jack's blond lashes should rest on pale, high cheekbones. Instead they were almost invisible in the folds of bloated eyelids, cheeks. Yet she could not stop there. She tugged further at the shroud with stiff, impatient, careless fingers.
Celia grabbed her hands, but Margaret struggled to free herself. "I must see his wounds. I must see them."
"Let me do it," Celia said. "You will tear the shroud."
His body was unrecognizable, the flesh discolored, the wounds gaping perversions of the body's form, obscenely intimate, exposing the inner maze of blood and tissue. The odor made Margaret gag. Why had she done this? This was not Jack, but his lifeless, bloated shell. She lifted the shroud to begin rewinding it, caught his right hand in a fold of the sheet. Something slipped from his handa small stone with a hole in the center. She plucked it from the sheet, tucked it up the tight sleeve of her shift. "Shall we add more dried herbs?" Celia asked quietly.
"What does it matter?"
Silently they bent to their work in the candlelit shed, the wind moaning and pushing at the fragile hut, the rain drumming overhead.
That Jack's good deed should come to this. Margaret remembered the day, just over a month past, when the plan had been hatched. She was at home in Perth, making use of a rare dry afternoon in March with a tolerable wind. Margaret and her servant had strung rope in the garden between two apple trees and hung out the bedding to air. She was hanging some of Roger's clothes as well. Four months he had been gone, and the clothes in the chest smelled musty. If the airing did not help, she would add them to next week's laundry. Margaret's hands were soon stiff with the cold, but the sunshine cheered her.
An errand, she could not recall what, brought Jack to the house. He strode into the yard, graceful and twitching with energy like a fine horse, wearing his best clothes, a green tunic with a white shirt beneath, brown leggings, soft blue shoes with long points and matching felt hat. How fine he looked. And she could tell by his posturing that he knew it.
"I am bidden to dine with Alan Fletcher." Jack looked smug. Alan was a wealthy and influential merchant in Perth, and Jack had ambitions. "I told him that I thought it high time I went in search of Roger. Master Fletcher has proposed a bit of business for me to do in Edinburgh and will provide the horse for the journey." A welcome offer. With no shipping from Berwick or Leith since the English had seized the ports the previous summer, the coffers were almost empty, and hiring a horse for such a journey was out of the question. Margaret needed her mare here.
Still, she had been puzzled. She had worried about Roger all this time, but all the while Jack had assured her Roger was not headstrong and he could take care of himself. "Why now?"
"I did not wantGod help us, Roger is home." Jack had just noticed the hanging clothes. "No wonder I confuse you."
"No, Roger is not home. Tell me more about your plan." Easter was upon them. Perhaps she might ride south with him to Roger's mother in Dunfermline for the holy day.
But Jack said he must leave at once, and Margaret had much to do for the household before she could depart.
"Why this haste?" she asked.
"Seize the opportunity." He had glanced round, then lifted her hand and kissed it. She pulled away from him, her face burning, and Jack grinned. "I cannot kiss my cousin?"
"It is good you take such an interest in searching for Roger," she said rather more loudly than necessary, "but why search for him in Edinburgh? He would not ship from there." His purpose in setting out had been to find an alternative port now that Berwick was in English hands. He had said he would begin with Dundee.
Jack still teased her with his eyes. "It was from Edinburgh he wrote to you. I may find a trace of him."
It was trueshe had received one letter from Roger in late November saying he would be home by Yuletide. The messenger had come from Edinburgh. "And if his trail leads you beyond Edinburgh, will Alan Fletcher approve your continuing with his horse?" Her father and Fletcher had long ago fallen out over the man's miserly ways. He would expect a full accounting from Jack.
"Such a fuss! Do you not wish to find Roger?"
"Sweet heaven, you know that is not why I ask."
But it had been the way of arguments with Jack. Teasing, playful. He had been such a vital presence.
And now here he lay.
Margaret's vigil began in tears. But as the hours slipped by her eyes dried, her sorrow replaced by a more selfish emotion. Fear. For herself, for Roger. Whoever had so savagely murdered Jack might be after Roger. After all, Jack's business had been Roger's business, Jack's kin were Roger's kin.
In the early morning Margaret's brother Father Andrew relieved her at the watch. After Celia took her leave, Margaret watched Andrew for a sign that he noticed the shroud had been opened and resewn.
He knelt beside it, said a prayer, then settled on the stool Celia had vacated, rubbing his hands together. "I don't need to tell you it's a cold morn. You must have frozen in here all the night."
"I preferred that to warming the lyke. Jack is four days gone."
"Aye." Andrew ran his hands through the dark hair that curled round his tonsure. He could be handsome if his mouth did not have such a downward curve, if his deep brown eyes met one's own more often.
Margaret was relieved he noticed nothing untoward. He had grown into such a humorless and judgmental man. She did not know whether she could have explained herself to his satisfaction. And she did not have the stomach for a sermon.
"Be off with you," Andrew said. "Fergus awaits you in the house."
Fergus was Margaret's younger brother, whom she had left in Perth to see to the business and take care of her house. "How can that be? It is at least a day's ride here."
"I sent word with a messenger from Edinburgh before I began the journey."
"It was good of you, Andrew." If anyone could empathize and in doing so cheer her, it would be Fergus. The brothers were perfect examples of the melancholic and the choleric-Andrew cold, Fergus hot, Andrew dark in mood and appearance, Fergus aglow in all things.
"He can escort you home."
"Home? But I cannot leave at a time like this. Roger's mother needs me."
"You have much to do in Perth. Find a new factor."
"Fergus has been doing the work since Jack left. He will continue."
"Uncle Thomas expects him in Aberdeen." Their father had arranged for Fergus to become secretary to his uncle, who had a fleet of merchant ships.
"He will not go now." He could not. He must not. "He will be Roger's factor."
"He is too young, Maggie. Younger even than you. He wants training," Andrew replied firmly.
Margaret felt her face growing hot. Fergus was young, seventeen. But Margaret had no money with which to pay a factor. "It is not for you to decide." The Church saw to all Andrew's material needs. He knew nothing of what the merchants suffered with the English blocking the shipping. He could not possibly understand her situation.
Their eyes locked. Margaret prayed Andrew could not see how close she was to tears.
He was the first to look away. "Go, break your fast, Maggie. The burial is set for nones."
Fleeing the hut, she slipped on the rutted ice, steadied herself against the wall. The morning was cold but dry. She stood a moment in the sharp air, letting it cool her burning cheeks. She must calm herself and think what to do.
Fergus jumped up from his seat by the fire circle to embrace Margaret.
"I am so sorry, Maggie. Jack was a good friend to you."
Fergus had thought Jack a difficult boss, ever finding fault, never praising, but he was aware how much Margaret had valued her husband's cousin.
"You should come back north with me," he continued. "Far as you can from the English soldiers. Better yet, close up the house and come to Aberdeen. Aye, that's best."
It was good advice, but Margaret was not free to agree to it. "How would Roger find me?" She fought tears, but they already streamed down her face. She was tired, hungry, frightened.
"Oh, Maggie, I didn't mean to make you weep."
But as he stood before her she saw that Fergus was truly a very young seventeen, not yet experienced enough to handle the responsibilities of a factor without guidance. He did need time with Uncle Thomas. She did not know how she was to manage without either Roger or Jack.
"Have any ships come through while I've been away?" she managed to ask.
"Nay. Things are no better than when you left."
Perhaps it did not matter. She was not likely to find a factor even had she the money to pay one. All the young men were slipping away to fight the English. Another good reason to tie Fergus to the business-he might yearn to be a soldier, but he would not desert her.
By late morning the sun shone on mud brittle with frost. Jack's coffin was to be placed in one of the shallow winter graves until the earth thawed and he could be moved to a permanent grave. Standing in the doorway of her goodmother's house, Margaret shivered and pulled her plaid mantle close about her, shifting from one foot to the other in an attempt to keep some feeling in her toes. She said good morrow to some neighbors and a priest from another parish, pressed the hands of an elderly goodwife in tears.
"Dame Kerr." It was the hoarse voice of Jack's father. Will Sinclair bowed his shriveled head to her; the stench of stale wine lingered in his wake as he entered the house. Jack had hated his father, a drunkard who had begotten eight children on two wives, both of whom had died of his neglect. Then he had worked two daughters so hard they, too, had fallen with fevers. Being the youngest, Jack had been taken in by his aunt Katherine.
The mourners had been congregating without the house after expressing their sorrow to the family. There was no room for all of them within. Now they milled about, soberly greeting neighbors.
Margaret's good mantle was suddenly placed on her shoulders. Fergus squeezed her shoulders and whispered, "No need for you to freeze, Maggie. Jack is on his own now, doing his own penance."
"What do you mean?" Margaret asked rather sharply.
Fergus moved beside her. "Surely he has not become a saint in your mind now he's dead? If ever there was an unsaintly man it was Jack with his schemes and his small lies, his flirtation with all females younger than Mother. But no, I recall he even flirted with Mother for a time, until she had a damning dream about him."
Margaret blushed at the memory.
"Look at all the females in this crowd, eh?"
"Aye," Margaret whispered.
"Well?" Fergus asked. "Why did you snap at me?"
"I am tired, that is all. And I do mourn him, Fergus. He was a great help to me and a good man."
"Oh, aye, I know that. But he was a knave as well."
"I'm much better since you joined me. And warmer."
"Your goodmother should have thought of the mantle."
Folk came up to speak with them, but Margaret responded with only half her attention. She kept looking for Roger's arrival at the edge of the crowd. Had he heard about Jack's death, he would have come. So he did not know. She would not let herself think of the other possibilities, that he was prevented from coming by illness or death.
The tolling bell stilled the voices, calling the mourners to the kirk. It kept the pallbearers' steps slow and steady. The priest's incense spiced the wintry air.
In the kirk Margaret's breath rose in frosty clouds as she prayed, steadying her goodmother beside her.
Once more the pallbearers lifted Jack. Katherine straightened, shook her head at Margaret's offer of support. For this last walk with her nephew she would be strong.
The hard clods of frozen earth dropping on the coffin sounded like hoofbeats in the quiet kirkyard. How they must thunder within Jack's coffin. Margaret shivered. Fergus put an arm round her.
It should have been Roger who comforted her.
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I've been a Candace Robb fan for years. I appreciate the chance to review this series although I'm not really sure what I was expecting. I knew this was a completely different series, but I think it is very unfortunate that fans of Ms. Robb's blockbuster Owen Archer series (such as myself) immediately compare Margaret Kerr to Owen - without meaning to. It's hard not to expect this new protagonist to be just like him and to be engaged with her right away. She is truly her own person in her own new kettle of fish. Admittedly, Margaret is hard to become attached to - in the beginning. She is a bit of a pain and I didn't gel with her "woe is me" aura. BUT, as the story progresses and she starts showing what she's actually made of, I got to like her. (I'm reading the 2nd book now and I can definitely say that I'm liking her more and more all the time.) The storyline continues to build and I'm enjoying this series. I think readers need to stay with her and she'll become beloved too. I think any fan of historical fiction and her writing, knows that Candace Robb is a master at bringing history to life for us. Medieval Scotland is one of my favorite time periods to read about. The obvious extensive and meticulous research she does shines through in her stories.
We follow Margaret Kerr on a journey through Bravehart's Scotland, where fearsome politics and personal betrayal parallel the beginnings of Margaret's self awareness and growing ability to respond to adventure, adversity, and disappointment. Uniqe plot twists surprise and delight in this very readable adventure of a bright, but unadventuous woman, who must come through some real and difficult circumstances. And in doing so shows us that women have always had to face adversity with courage. And a little romance never hurts!
In 1297 Scotland, Margaret already shocked by her husband Roger Sinclair not returning home from a trip to Edinburgh five months ago is further stunned. Roger¿s cousin Jack, who went in search of his missing relative, has just returned home in a shroud. Jack allegedly died in a barroom brawl. Upon inspecting the corpse, Margaret realizes that someone deliberately and viciously murdered Jack. Unable to sit and wait any longer, Margaret travels to Edinburgh in search of her spouse and Jack¿s killer. She will soon learn why no one including relatives and her husband wants Margaret in the city, let alone her investigating a murder. Readers can trust that Candace Robb will never betray their belief in the quality of her historical novels. Her latest tale is a historical mystery that is enriched with a strong feel of the era. The story line is exciting as the intrepid Margaret conducts her amateur sleuthing over the objections of seemingly everyone. A TRUST BETRAYED is hopefully the beginning of a new series from one of the better authors of medieval tales (see the Owen Archer novels for wonderful fifteenth century period mysteries). Harriet Klausner