1374. When a member of one of York’s most prominent families is found dead in the woods, his throat torn out, rumours spread like wildfire that wolves are running loose throughout the city. Persuaded to investigate by the victim’s father, Owen Archer is convinced that a human killer is responsible. But before he can gather sufficient evidence to prove his case, a second body is discovered, stabbed to death. Is there a connection? What secrets are contained within the victim’s household? And what does apprentice healer Alisoun know that she’s not telling?
Teaming up with Geoffrey Chaucer, who is in York on a secret mission on behalf of Prince Edward, Owen’s enquiries will draw him headlong into a deadly conspiracy.
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The Dogs in the Night
York, Autumn 1374
The river mist curled round Magda Digby's rock in the Ouse, dimming the reds and golds of sunset, distorting sound, creating shifting shapes that danced at the edge of Alisoun Ffulford's vision, chilling her fingers until they were too stiff for the close work. She gathered up the feathers, arrow shafts, and knife with which she had been fletching and returned them to her work basket, then paused, her hand on the door latch, listening to dogs baying. Upriver, she thought, in the Forest of Galtres. 'May they be safe,' she whispered. Like St Francis of Assisi, she felt a bond with animals, so much so that Magda handed over to her all animals brought to the house on the rock for healing. Alisoun preferred these patients to the human ones. Their needs were clear, they did not try to mask their illnesses, and, once healed, gladly departed without complaint or blame. She strained to hear the sounds beneath the dogs' baying. A man's angry shout. Another. The same voice? She could not be certain. The dogs continued as before, which she took to mean they were unharmed. Good.
She lifted her gaze to the blank eyes of the upside-down sea serpent on the bow of the ship that served as the roof of Magda Digby's house. A cunning choice of building material, the part of the ship with the figurehead. The sea serpent was widely believed to have magical powers. Not that Magda ever confirmed or denied it, but as folk had the same suspicion about her, their unease about the sea serpent and the Riverwoman gave them pause about crossing either one. Nodding to the enigmatic carving, Alisoun whispered, 'Whoever disturbs the night upriver will not dare trespass here.' A subtle draft and a warmth on the back of her neck, as if the figurehead responded in a gesture of reassurance, felt rather than seen. There had been a time when such feelings had frightened her, but that had passed as she learned to trust to the mystery of Magda Digby's healing gifts. Now, she took it as a blessing.
Stepping inside, she traded the damp chill and rich, earthy scent of the tidal Ouse for an aromatic warmth, the brightly burning fire teasing out the scents of the dried plants and roots hanging in the rafters to dry. Earlier, she had escaped from its warmth to the cool, fresh air without; now, chilled by the mist, she was grateful for the heat, and the homely familiarity. But she was not at ease – the dogs baying in that eerie mist ...
She steadied herself by calling to mind the remedies for dog bite and checking her supplies. Although Magda said folk knew to give guard dogs a wide berth, there was always a first time. Betony for the bite of a mad dog, pound in the mortar and lay on the wound. Or plantain. Vervain and yarrow to be mixed with wheat. Burdock and black horehound need salt. Calendula powder in warm water to drink. She had plenty of betony and calendula powder. Though unlikely to need it, she arranged them on the work table, preferring to be prepared.
Now to her evening meal. The fragrance of the stew pleased her. She had learned to use herbs to season her cooking, making almost anything palatable, even a coney that some would have rejected as too old and gristly for the stew pot. With Magda away, Alisoun felt obliged to stay close to the small rock island in the tidal river, so that she might not miss those who came to the Riverwoman's house for healing. She dared not range too far afield in hunting for food, making do with fish and small prey like the aged coney that had appeared on the riverbank nearby.
She paused with her spoon halfway to her mouth as a lone dog began to bark, an angry sound, and then a man's startled shout, followed by a loud curse, a few more cries, more pain than anger. Then silence. Alisoun lowered her spoon, bowed her head, and pressed her shaking hands together in prayer. She stayed there until she felt the tremors quiet.
Though Magda scoffed at prayer, she encouraged Alisoun to use her apprenticeship to develop her own skills as healer, not become a second Magda. All that goes before shapes thee. Even thy habit of prayer. Magda honors that. Alisoun had little faith that her prayers were heard – God and the Blessed Mother had stood aside while she lost all her family to the pestilence. But something in the words, the ritual, comforted her.
According to Magda, to pay attention to how Alisoun felt about her choices was to heed her inner wisdom, whence came her gift for healing. Her gift. Long had Alisoun yearned for even a morsel of encouragement from Magda. The faith implicit in this instruction had been hard won. In the beginning, Magda merely offered Alisoun shelter, let her observe as she might, and then sent her away to serve as a nurse for Captain Archer and Lucie Wilton's children, and as a companion to successive invalids. Praying that they were tests, Alisoun had done as she was told – though not without frequent complaint. And though Magda had warned her time and again Thou hast fire in thy eyes, and it is blinding thee, she continued to invite Alisoun to observe her, and, in time, to attend her. The turning point had come at the deathbed of Archbishop Thoresby, where Alisoun had served as the Riverwoman's assistant. From that time forward, Magda referred to Alisoun as her apprentice – and sometimes simply as a healer.
Looking back, Alisoun wondered at Magda's patience, and did her best to deserve her gift. She was keenly aware of the trust Magda placed in her, staying behind to see to all who came to the Riverwoman's rock while she was away. So far Alisoun had done well, challenged only by her usual doubts about her ability, her calling to be a healer. Not when at work – when tending the ill or injured she thought of nothing but how she might best serve. Her doubts arose in the quiet moments. Pray God that was the worst of it. If she disappointed Magda, she did not know what would become of her. Magda steadied her, coaxed her into believing in herself. Without her ...
Too much thinking. She finished her modest meal and tidied up, then settled on a stool by the fire and tried to empty her mind, listening to the fire snap, the house creak as it settled for the night, the drying herbs rustle above in the draft from the unglazed windows. With the tide out, the sounds of the river receded to a soft gurgle. Until this evening she had welcomed this part of her day. But the solitude wore thin. She missed Magda and looked forward to her return.
The Riverwoman had accompanied Lucie Wilton and her family to her late father's manor to the south, Freythorpe Hadden. It was a somber traveling party, escorting the body of Philippa, Dame Lucie's aunt, for burial. The elderly woman had died in her sleep after a long decline, cared for all the while by Dame Lucie. Most fortunate woman. When Alisoun served as nursemaid in that household she had at first chafed under the old woman's watchful eye, but in time she had grown fond of her. Dame Philippa loved to tell tales, and would hold Alisoun's hand in both of hers as she reached the conclusion, leaning close and looking straight into her eyes. The tales had taught her so much about the important families in York that the city felt less foreign to her – having grown up on a farm upriver, it was a gift.
So many gifts, so undeserving.
Alisoun was roused from her reverie by the clatter and squelch of someone stumbling on the slippery rocks that led from the riverbank on the north to Magda's rock at low tide. The earlier unease returned, and she fought the impulse to string her bow and ready an arrow as she rose to fetch a lantern. But recalling Magda's training steadied her. Those seeking a healer should be greeted with open arms, not an arrow aimed at their heart.
In response to a firm rap on the door Alisoun swung it open, lifting the lantern high as she intoned, 'All who seek healing are welcome here.' Magda need not bother with such greetings. Her mere presence reassured the supplicant. But Alisoun did not yet have that gift.
A man stood on the porch, blocking the fading light. 'I seek the Riverwoman.' Pain constricted his voice. He stood slumped, one arm cradled in the other.
'I see you are injured. Dame Magda is away, but she has entrusted me with the care of those who come seeking her,' said Alisoun.
Adjusting the lantern so that she might look at the arm he favored, she recognized him when he glanced up and bobbed his head at the figurehead, a ritual of respect he performed whenever he called on Magda. Crispin Poole. A merchant recently returned to York, he had consulted Magda about the pain he suffered in his stump of an arm, the injury long healed, but still troubling him. Tonight he cradled it as it bled through the sleeve of his jacket.
Saturated, she found when she touched it. She felt him trembling, smelled his sweat. 'A knife wound?' she asked.
She remembered the baying. 'I heard several dogs, then one.'
'Several? No, only the one.' He said it as if he would brook no argument regarding the number. 'A hell hound.'
'No doubt it seemed so when it sank its teeth into you.'
'A wolf, I think, though I am told the sergeant of the forest rid Galtres of them.'
Not quite. In winter a small pack came down from the moors, seeking food. But they did not harm folk unless threatened. And it was not yet winter. Alisoun might reassure him of this, but Magda's instruction was to say only what thou must. Thou art here to listen.
'Whether dog or wolf – or hell hound, the remedies are the same,' said Alisoun. 'I've readied all that I need.'
'When will the Riverwoman return?'
'I am not sure. But I do know your wound will not wait.'
'Mistress Alisoun, forgive me, but are you not still an apprentice?' She might say much to that, but she chose her words. 'I have seen to a variety of wounds, and as Magda is not here, you would be wise to let me see to yours.' She stepped aside to allow him into the house if he so chose.
He hesitated, then ducked beneath the lintel, and entered.
As she was closing the door Alisoun looked out into the gathering darkness, puzzled by the absence of a horse on the bank. Most chose to ride, not walk through the forest, if they had the means, and Crispin Poole was wealthy. Or so they said. So he had been on foot when attacked. Doing what? She imagined Magda standing before her, a bony finger to her lips, shaking her head. Thou art a healer, not a spy.
Crispin had settled on his usual bench near the fire. That would not do.
'Forgive me, I should have said – for this you must sit at the worktable.' She led him across the room, conscious of how he must hunch over to avoid the rafters and the hanging herbs. Tall like Captain Archer, yet otherwise so unlike him.
Lighting a spirit lamp for the close work, she instructed him to rest his injured arm on the table. With care, she slipped a hand beneath it so that she might move it about in the light to study the wound. The dog had sunk its teeth in deep into what remained of his forearm, a four-finger expanse. The teeth had gone clear to the bone. 'How did you manage to get it to release you?'
'I – shouted and – I could not tell you what convinced it I was not its dinner. All I could think of was retrieving what's left of my arm.'
'You did not attempt to attack it in turn?'
He looked at her as if she were a half-wit. 'I should think it plain my fighting days are over.'
'Forgive me for my thoughtless question.'
'We locked eyes as we each backed away.' He shivered to describe it.
The experience had unsettled this large, powerful man. She wondered what he had done to so anger the dog for it to attack. And the earlier baying. Why did he deny what he must have heard?
She reminded herself that a healer must put the good of the patient before her curiosity. He must not feel compromised. She took a deep breath. Enough talk.
'Some brandywine before I clean it and stitch the flesh together? My ministrations will worsen the pain before relieving it, the worst of it.' And the brandywine should calm him. She needed him steady.
'I would welcome it.'
Slipping away to pour him some, she also fetched warm water for the calendula drink. With such a deep wound, best to give him that now, and send him home with enough for a day, as well as packing the wound with a paste of betony. And boneset, in case the bone had been damaged.
She sensed his intense eyes following her hands as she worked, but he kept still and silent. Nary a jerk or a wince, as if accustomed to sudden, sharp pain. Well, the arm. Of course.
It was only when Alisoun was tying the bandage that he spoke again.
'You are young to have such skill.'
'Our queen was younger than me when she took on the role of the king's helpmeet and mother to all the realm. And Princess Joan —'
'I did not mean to insult you. I wish only to thank you for your gentle, healing touch.'
Alisoun was glad only her hands were in the lamplight as she blushed. Apparently she was too quick to recite her litany of females who had been treated as grown women by the age of sixteen.
'I pray you,' she said, 'I would thank you not to mention my outburst to Dame Magda.'
Crispin nodded. 'And I would ask that you tell no one of this incident,' he said. 'Not even Dame Magda.' He neither raised his voice nor seemed excited, yet he made it clear he expected her to agree. Something in his eyes.
'That will be difficult if she returns before you are healed.'
'I am confident that you will find a way.'
'But why? People should know of the danger.'
'I have my reasons. I pray you, respect my request.' A slight smile that did nothing to warm his wide, dark, thickly lashed eyes. An interesting face, unscarred, yet with the uneven color and roughened texture of someone who spent much time at sea. His heft was characteristic of a muscular man going soft as he aged and grew less active. Magda had called him a merchant adventurer – though more the latter, suspecting he earned more of his wealth by eliminating his partners' competition than by his eye for a bargain. For such a man to be so disquieted by an encounter with a dog, and now this secrecy. What had so shaken him? And why must it be a secret?
Secrecy added cost to treatment for those who had the coin – Magda's rule, as it afforded her the means to care for those who were unable to pay her.
And, indeed, when Alisoun named her fee, Crispin did not object, drawing the silver from his scrip without comment.
She handed him the pouch of calendula powder, with instructions.
'I am grateful to you, Mistress Alisoun. May God bless you for the work you do.'
She stepped out the door after him, glad to see that she had worked quickly enough that the tide was just beginning to come in and his crossing should be easy even in the dark.
'Did you encounter the dog nearby?' She hoped it a sufficiently innocuous question. 'I thought to forage for roots at dawn. But having tasted blood, it might be keen for more.'
'Near enough,' he said. 'But if you have foraged in the forest all this while without mishap, I should think you will be safe. May God watch out for you, Mistress Alisoun.'
Crispin bowed to her and set off across the rocks, his boots getting only a little wet in the slowly rising water. I should think you will be safe ... Why? Had someone set the dog on him? He'd said he would have been a fool to challenge it. Yet why else would it attack? And why had it not simply kept its distance as wild animals commonly did in such encounters? All this, and his denial of the earlier baying, unsettled her.
As she lingered in the doorway staring at his back, she caught a movement to her left, upriver. A figure stood at the edge of a stand of trees. Forty, fifty paces up the riverbank. Watching Magda's house? Or Crispin Poole?
When he did not seem to notice the watcher she thought to warn the injured man, but he had already reached the bank. She might wade across, but why? He'd not endeared himself to her, with his selfish refusal to alert the community. She had fulfilled her duty as a healer, tending his wound.
Glancing back toward the stand of trees, Alisoun saw no one. 'My imagination?' she asked the sea serpent. No response. Not a good sign. Once inside she strung her bow and set it near the door, with a quiver of arrows. The tide might be coming in, but she would take no chances.
A week later, Alisoun woke shortly after dawn, having dreamt of Crispin Poole being savaged by a hell-hound, a giant creature, black, with blazing eyes. Shivering, she stoked the fire, lit a lamp, and checked the young woman on the pallet by the fire, grateful for an absorbing task. Young Wren's head was cool. No fever, God be thanked. A miscarriage, the bleeding afterward perhaps more than what might be expected, nothing worse. And, for this serving girl, a blessing. A child would bring only grief.
Gently shaking the girl awake, Alisoun helped her sit up so she might drink the honey water laced with herbs to stop the bleeding.
'If I hurry, my mistress will never know I was gone the night,' said the girl in a hoarse whisper. Her throat was dry from the herbs. The honey in warm water should help that.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Conspiracy of Wolves"
Copyright © 2019 Candace Robb.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Previous titles by Candace Robb,
Chapter One: The Dogs in the Night,
Chapter Two: A Clearing in the Wood,
Chapter Three: Salves, Barbers, Secrets,
Chapter Four: A Rumor of Wolves,
Chapter Five: Between the Wolf and the Dog,
Chapter Six: A Matter of Conscience,
Chapter Seven: Ripples in Time,
Chapter Eight: Old Soldiers and Intrepid Maids,
Chapter Nine: A Dog in the Night,
Chapter Ten: Lying Dead in the Garden,
Chapter Eleven: An Old Enemy,
Chapter Twelve: Gerta,
Chapter Thirteen: Bitter Words,
Chapter Fourteen: Into the Flames,
Chapter Fifteen: A Conspiracy of Wolves,
Chapter Sixteen: Diplomacy,
Chapter Seventeen: A New Beginning,
'Recommended for fans of other historical writers such as C.J. Sansom, Ellis Peters, and Sharon Kay Penman.' Library Journal