Company of Liars

Company of Liars

by Karen Maitland


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Company of Liars by Karen Maitland


The year is 1348. In a world ruled by faith and fear, nine desperate strangers, brought together by chance, attempt to flee the certain death that is rolling inexorably toward them. Each traveler has a hidden gift, a dark secret, and a story to tell….

From Camelot, the relic-seller, to Cygnus, the one-armed storyteller—from the strange, silent child Narigorm to a painter and his pregnant wife, each guards secrets closely. None are as they seem. And one among them conceals the darkest secret of all—propelling these liars to a destiny more perilous than any of them could imagine.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780440244424
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/25/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 374,574
Product dimensions: 5.26(w) x 8.04(h) x 1.06(d)

About the Author

Karen Maitland has a doctorate in psycholinguistics. She traveled and worked in many parts of the world, from the Arctic Circle to Africa, before finally settling in the medieval city of Lincoln in England. Her British debut novel, The White Room, was short-listed for the Authors’ Club of Great Britain Best First Novel Award. She is at work on her next novel, The Owl Killers.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Midsummer Fair

They say that if you suddenly wake with a shudder, a ghost has walked over your grave. I woke with a shudder on that Midsummer's Day. And although I had no way of foreseeing the evil that day would bring to all of us, it was as if in that waking moment, I felt the chill of it, glimpsed the shadow of it, as if something malevolent was hovering just out of sight.

It was dark when I woke, that blackest of hours before dawn when the candles have burnt out and the first rays of sun have not yet pierced the chinks in the shutters. But it wasn't the hour's coldness that made me shiver. We were packed into the sleeping barn too snugly for anyone to feel a draft.

Every bed and every inch of floor was occupied by those who had poured into Kilmington for the Midsummer Fair. The air was fetid with sweat and the belches, farts and stinks of stomachs made sour by too much ale. Men and women grunted and snored on the creaking boards, groaning, as here and there a restless sleeper, in the grip of a bad dream, elbowed his neighbour in the ribs.

I seldom dream, but that night I had dreamt and the dream was still with me when I woke. I had dreamt of the bleak lowland hills they call the Cheviots, where England and Scotland crouch, battle ready, staring each other down. I saw those hills as plainly as if I had been standing there, the rounded peaks and turbulent streams, the wild goats and the _wind-_tossed rooks, the Pele towers and the squat Bastle farmhouses. I knew them well. I had known that place from the day I first drew breath; it was the place I had once called home.

I had not dreamt of it for many years. I had never returned to it. I could never return. I knew that much on the day I walked away from it. And through all the years I have tried to put it from my mind and, mostly, I have succeeded. There's no point in hankering for a place you cannot be. Anyway, what is home? The place where you were born? The place where you are still remembered? The memory of me will have long since rotted to dust. And even if there were any left alive who still remember, they would never forgive me, could never absolve me for what I have done. And on that Midsummer's Day, when I dreamt of those hills, I was about as far from home as it is possible to be.

I've travelled for many years, so many that I have long since ceased to count them. Besides, it's of no consequence. The sun rises in the east and sinks in the west and we told ourselves it always would. I should have known better than to believe that. I am, after all, a camelot, a peddler, a hawker of hopes and crossed fingers, of piecrust promises and gilded stories. And believe me, there are plenty who will buy such things. I sell faith in a bottle: the water of the Jordan drawn from the very spot where the Dove descended, the bones of the innocents slaughtered in Bethlehem, and the shards of the lamps carried by the wise virgins. I offer skeins of Mary Magdalene's hair, redder than a young boy's blushes, and the white milk of the Virgin Mary in tiny ampoules no plumper than her nipples. I show them blackened fingers of Saint Joseph, palm leaves from the Promised Land, and hair from the very ass that bore our blessed Lord into Jerusalem. And they believe me, they believe it all, for haven't I the scar to prove I've been all the way to the Holy Land to fight the heathen for these scraps?

You can't avoid my scar, purple and puckered as a hag's arsehole, spreading my nose half across my cheek. They sewed up the hole where my eye should have been and over the years the lid has shrunk and shrivelled into the socket, like the skin on a cold milk pudding. But I don't attempt to hide my face, for what better provenance can you want, what greater proof that every bone I sell is genuine, that every drop of blood splashed down upon the very stones of the Holy City itself? And I can tell them such stories-how I severed a Saracen's hand to wrest the strips of our Lord's swaddling clothes from his profaning grasp; how I had to slaughter five, nay a dozen, men, just to dip my flask into the Jordan. I charge extra for the stories, of course. I always charge.

We all have to make a living in this world and there are as many ways of getting by in this life as there are people in it. Compared to some, my trade might be considered respectable and it does no harm. You might say it even does good, for I sell hope and that's the most precious treasure of them all. Hope may be an illusion, but it's what keeps you from jumping in the river or swallowing hemlock. Hope is a beautiful lie and it requires talent to create it for others. And back then on that day when they say it first began, I truly believed that the creation of hope was the greatest of all the arts, the noblest of all the lies. I was wrong.

That day was counted a day of ill fortune by those who believe in such things. They like to have a day to fix it on, as if death can have an hour of birth, or destruction a moment of conception. So they pinned it upon Midsummer's Day 1348, a date that everyone can remember. That was the day on which humans and beasts alike became the wager in a divine game. That was the cusp upon which the scales of Heaven and Hell swung free.

That particular Midsummer's Day was born shivering and sickly, wrapped in a dense mist of fine rain. Ghosts of cottages, trees, and byres hovered in the frail light, as if at cockcrow they'd vanish. But the cock did not crow. It did not hail that dawn. The birds were mute. All who met as they hurried to milking and tending of livestock called out cheerfully that the rain would not last long and then it would be as fine a Midsummer's Day as any yet seen, but you could see they were not convinced. The absence of the birds unnerved them. They knew that silence was a bad omen on this day of all days, though none dared say so.

But, as they predicted, the drizzle did finally dry up. A sliver of sun shone fitfully between the heavy clouds. It had no warmth in it, but the villagers of Kilmington were not to be downcast by that small matter. Waves of laughter rolled across the Green. Bad omen or not, this was their holiday and even in the teeth of a gale they would have sworn they were enjoying themselves. Outlanders had poured in from neighbouring villages to sell and to buy, barter and haggle, settle old quarrels and start new ones. There were servants looking for masters, girls looking for husbands, widowers looking for good strong wives, and thieves looking for any purse they could cut.

Beside the pond, a gutted pig turned on a great spit and the smoke of sweet roasting meat hung in the damp air, making the mouth water. A small _red-_haired boy cranked the spit slowly, kicking at the dogs that jumped and snapped at the carcass, but the poor brutes were driven to near frenzy by the smell and not even the spitting fire or the blows from a stout staff deterred them. The villagers cut juicy chunks from the sizzling loins, tearing at them with their teeth and licking the fat from greasy fingers. Even those whose teeth were long worn down to blackened stumps sucked greedily at wedges of fat and _pork-_crackling as the juices ran down their chins. Such a rare extravagance of fresh meat was to be savoured down to the last succulent bone.

Gangs of barefoot boys tore through the gossiping adults, hoping to distract the _scarlet-_clad jugglers and bring their clubs crashing to the ground. Lads and lasses made free, oblivious of the damp grass and the disapproving scowls of priest and clerk. Peddlers bellowed their wares. Minstrels played upon fife and drum, and youngsters shouted loud enough to wake the demons in hell. It was the same every year. All made the most of their fair, for there was precious little else to make merry with for the rest of the year.

But even in the jostling, noisy crowd you could not fail to notice the child. It was her hair, not blond but pure white, a _silk-_fine tumble of it like an old man's beard run wild, and beneath the snowcap of her hair, a face, paler than a nun's thighs, white eyebrows, white lashes framing eyes translucent as a dawn sky. The fragile skin of her bony limbs glowed ice blue against the _nut-_brown hides of the other market brats. But it wasn't just the absence of colour in her that drew my attention; it was the _beating.

Nothing unusual in a child getting a thrashing; I'd probably seen half a dozen already that day, a switch across bare legs for a carelessly dropped basket of eggs, a tanned backside for running off without leave, a cuff about the ear for no good reason except that the brat was in the way. All of the young sinners trying to dodge the blows and yelp loudly enough to satisfy the chastisers that the punishment had been fully appreciated; all, that is, except her. She neither yelped nor struggled, but was as silent as if the blows to her back were inflicted with a feather instead of a belt, and this only seemed to infuriate the beater more. I thought he'd whip her senseless, but finally, defeated, he let her go. She stumbled a few yards away from him, unsteady, but with her chin held high, though her legs almost gave way beneath her. Then she turned her head and looked at me as if she sensed me watching. Her pale blue eyes were as dry and clear as a summer's day, and around her mouth was the merest shadow of a smile.

The beater was not the only one who'd been enraged by her silence. A fat beringed merchant was shaking his fist at the man, demanding recompense, purple in the face with rage. I couldn't hear what passed between them for the shouts and chatter of the small crowd that had gathered around them, but at last some deal seemed to be struck and the merchant allowed himself to be led off in the direction of the tavern, with the onlookers bringing up the rear. The beater doubtless intended to pacify the outraged merchant with a soporific quantity of strong wine. Clutching the merchant ingratiatingly on the elbow with one hand, he didn't waste the opportunity to cuff the girl one last time with the other as he passed her, a practised blow, delivered without apparently glancing in his victim's direction. The blow sent her sprawling on the ground and wisely, this time, she stayed there until he was safely inside the tavern. Then she crawled into a narrow gap between a tree trunk and the wheels of a wagon and crouched, arms wrapped tight around her knees, staring at me with wide expressionless eyes, like a cat watching from the hearth.

She looked about twelve years old, barefoot and clad in a grubby white woollen shift, with a bloodred band about the neck that made the whiteness of her hair shimmer. She continued to stare, but not at my scar, at my good eye, with an intensity that seemed more imperious than curious. I turned away. Whatever had transpired had nothing to do with me. The girl had been punished for some crime, thieving probably, and doubtless deserved what she got, though she was obviously well hardened to it, since it had had so little effect on her. So there was no reason for me to speak to her.

I pulled a pastry from my scrip, broke it in two and tossed half to her, then hunkered down with my back pressed against the tree trunk to eat my share. I was hungry and it was a quiet spot to eat, now that the crowd had moved on. And I couldn't have eaten and not offered the child a bite, now could I? I gazed out at the bustle of the fair, chewing slowly. The pastry was as dry as the devil's hoof, but the salt mutton inside was sweet enough. The girl was holding her pastry in both fists as if she feared someone might snatch it from her. She said nothing, not even a thank-you.

I took a swig of ale to wash the dry mouthful down. "Do you have a name, girl?"


"Well, Narigorm, if you're going to thieve from his sort you'll need to learn your trade better. You're fortunate he didn't send for the bailiff."

"Wasn't thieving." The words came out muffled from a _well-_stuffed mouth.

I shrugged and glanced sideways at her. She'd finished the pastry already and was licking her fingers with fierce concentration. I wondered when she'd last eaten. Given the man's mood, I doubted he was going to feed her again that day. But I half believed her about the stealing. A girl who stood out so vividly from the crowd was not likely to survive long as a pickpocket, and it occurred to me that with her looks her father or her master, whichever the man was, might well have found a good living renting her out by the hour to men whose taste runs to young virgins. But she'd clearly angered the customer this time. Maybe she'd refused the merchant, or else he'd tried her and discovered he was not the first to come banging on her door. She'd learn ways to conceal that in time. More experienced women would teach her the trick of it, and she'd doubtless earn a good living when she mastered the art. She'd a good few years ahead of her in the trade, more than most I reckoned, for even when the bloom of her youth was gone there would still be plenty who'd pay handsomely for a woman who looked so different from the rest.

"You want me to do it for you now, for the pastry?" Her voice was as cold as her gaze. "We'll have to be quick before Master comes back; he'll not be best pleased if you don't pay in coins."

Her small icy hand tried to insinuate itself into mine. I put it back in her lap, gently but firmly, sad for her that she had already learned not to expect any gifts from life. Not even a crust comes free. Still, the younger you learn that lesson, the fewer disappointments you'll have.

"I'm past such things now, child. Much too old. Besides, it was only a bite of food. Take it and welcome. You're a pretty girl, Narigorm. You don't need to sell yourself so cheaply. Take some advice from an old camelot: The more people pay for something, the more they believe it's worth."

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Company of Liars 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 60 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Part historical novel, part horror thriller, Comapny Of Liars at first seems like it wants to be too much of everything. But this sophomore novel by British writer Karen Maitland meanages to weave all these elements into a gripping narrative which is an impressive for its psychological subtlety as it is for its page-turning plot. It is 1348 and the Black Death has England in its grasp. Camelot, a disfigured seller of the 'relics' of saints, is in the southern English town of Kilmington when a man collapses in the marketplace, covered in blue-black spots and coughing blood. After leaping to the defence of Jofre, a young musician not canny enough to tell an innkeeper that he has travelled from the north, the narrator ends up travelling with Jofre and his master, Rodrigo, moving north up the island in a bid to outrun the pandemic. They are soon joined by a creepy rune-reading child and her nursemaid, a runaway teenage couple, a mean-spirited man with a horse-drawn wagon laded with mysterious wares, and a gifted storyteller with a single white swan wing in place of a left arm. As this motley crew try to escape the pestilence pressing in from the coasts, their nights are haunted by the howls of an unseen wolf who mysteriously manages to keep pace with them. And as the dark secrets that each member of the company harbours are gradually revealed, horrific deaths occur one by one, described in stomach-churning detail. For a narrative driven by its action-packed plot, it is stunning how Maitland manages to sustain a gothic, claustrophobic air that at times recalls Edgar Allan Poe. Merry Olde England this is not. Most characters are also fully and realistically fleshed out, especially the narrator, whose own secret is handled in a clever and poignant way. The one exception is that of the rune-reader Narigorm, whose characteristics - pale, female, emotionless, speaks of doom - are rather run-of-the-mill creepy child stuff. The writer's incorporation of the actual historical customs is also fascinating, such as the village wedding held for two cripples: 'It is said that if you marry two cripples together in the graveyard at the community's expense it will turn away divine wrath and protect the village from whatever pestilence or sickness rages around it.' This is a ceremony at once comic and macabre, especially when the villagers proceed to ensure that the wedding is consummated. The only thing that spoils the novel is the rather hokey ending that calls to mind -grade horror movie franchises, the kind with a twist at tjhe end to set up the sequel. This is not a damning flaw though - there are many pages to read before that destination, and this journey really is worth experiencing in and of itself
Gracie_L More than 1 year ago
I haven't read a book like this in quite some time. The story had me going from the first few pages. The writing style set a great pace and whirled me into a world I haven't experienced - the plague of 1348. I felt personally invested in the characters and had sympahty for most of them. But at the very, I understood them. Sometimes that is what is most important.

I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone.
TWTaz More than 1 year ago
What a great book! So different than anything I¿ve read in a long time. This book was full of fascinating characters and a story that hooked me from the first page. I enjoyed this book so much that I didn¿t mind the slightly disappointing ending. The journey up to that point makes it more than worth your time.
Edena More than 1 year ago
The character development is rich and empathetic. Their deepth painted wonderful pictures in my mind. Their interaction with each other feels believable for a group of very different people forced to rely on each other's company for both physical and emotional survival.
LN_Adcox More than 1 year ago
The protagonist is burdened with eight seemingly helpless refugees as he flees the pestilence (later to be called ¿The Black Plague) across 1348 England. His willingness to allow them to accompany him and is refusal to sneak away from them later are among the very few clues to his secret. The other members of the party have their own secrets or lies. Revealing a lie leads to death. The reader is challenged to guess the lies or secrets. It was not too difficult to correctly guess the secret being hidden by Pleasance, Rodrigo and Jofre, Cygnus, and Narigorm. I was also close to guessing Osmond and Adela¿s secret as well. The clues for Zophiel and Camelot are much more subtle.

The author touches on the nature of truth and good and evil although perhaps a bit superficially or simplistically. However, it is important to believe in evil if you are to believe that the events that transpire are possible. If the idea of using a Ouija board is abhorrent to the reader, this is unlikely to pose a problem. Since the troupe seeks to avoid the pestilence, the reader sees the common horrors associated with The Black Plague from a distance - the mass graves, the stench, and the black crosses drawn on abandoned homes. What the reader experiences directly are the horrors of an empty stomach, lack of shelter and protection from the elements, fear of anyone encountered that could be a robber or that could carry the pestilence, and horror of a grey, wet and muddy environment without the joy of sunshine and warmth. The ending may leave some disgruntled, but few will find it other than surprising.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was obviously well researched. The subject matter was dark but the story was told so beautifully you can't stop reading and you don't want the story to end. Which brings me to the ending: I thought the ending was wrapped up nicely with all of the characters secrets revealed.....until that little surprise on the last page that keeps you guessing. Authors often use this little twist to end their books and I don't like it. (As did a lot of other reviewers). I like the neat little "The end" like at the end of old movies. Unless there's going to be a sequel which I doubt since this was written several years ago. But don't let it stop you from reading this well written book.
22cool More than 1 year ago
I very much enjoyed the mystery, period setting and the complexity of the characters within the historical time period. The ending was certainly a surprise, but somewhat unsatisfying. It left you wanting more.
maggiesaunt More than 1 year ago
A friend recommended this book and I opened it somewhat skeptically -- then couldn't put it down! Just when I thought I had figured out the truth about one of the characters, the truth came out and...sometimes I was right, sometimes wrong. All the characters are effectively drawn and engaging -- you can't be ambivalent about any of them, you either hate or like each of them. For anyone who is enamored of England, the Middle Ages, historical novels, this is a "must". It would also make great supplemental reading for a mature Brit Lit class, but I'd be selective in recommending it to high school kids. It's a great read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
See above
DavidH42 More than 1 year ago
The story seemed interesting and had potential. However. in the nook version, the travelers' back stories were presented in fine print placed in a frame like border. Unfortunately those parts were so small as to be unreadable. The size was not adjustable as with the main text. So I was unable to make out what was being said. After several attempts
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read. Loved it.
ABookishGirlBlog More than 1 year ago
he plague sends an unlikely group of travelers on a journey to try and escape its ugly death but somehow death reaches in and takes what he wants to. This was a tedious read but one that I am glad I stuck with. The ending was most surprising, sharing all the secrets of this band of misfits I was generally shocked by their secrets, which is hard to do for I don't shock easily, I had no idea how deep and unsuspecting secrets can be. Narigorm , a leader of sorts for this group, was my favorite character and the one with the biggest secret of them all.  Recommended for: For people who love fictional adventurous travel reads. 
eternalised More than 1 year ago
It’s been three days since I finished “Company of Liars” and I’m still not sure what to think of it. Part of the novel is dark, disturbing and unsettling, and the other part is mostly ‘meh’. In this book, we meet with nine travellers, joined together by fate more than anything else, who try to escape from the Plague wrestling its wray through England. The protagonist, Camelot, a scarred, one-eyed seller of relics, is a cynical, sarcastic protagonist, but nevertheless enjoyable to read about. There’s a bunch of superstitution thrown in as well, folklore, and the presence of an unknown evil, which we never truly meet, but is almost certainly there. Whether it is the wolves of the Bishop, as one of the characters proclaims at some point during their trip, or destiny, or the Plague itself, its chasing them, and sending a sense of dread and foreboding at our little group. While I generally liked the plot, the references and reimagining of the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, I wasn’t too impressed by the writing. Some passages were pure gold, with descriptions so masterfully crafted they made me jealous. But the pacing was off sometimes, and generally very slow. It took pages and pages to progress from one place to the other, and we got way too much time stuck inside Camelot’s head, which made me feel claustrophobic. The ending was a bit disappointing. Up until then, most of the folklore and superstition had been reduced to just that – folklore and superstition. But then, the book takes a complete turn, throw in some supernatural elements and decides to call that an ending. Not that impressive. Nevertheless, I did enjoy this book. It’s an intriguing mix of historical fiction, mystery, suspense and atmospheric writing. Too bad for the ending and the dragging passages, or it would’ve been an absolutely great read.
Einnoc-the-Elder More than 1 year ago
Each character has a hidden secret. You'll wonder who will reveal their secret next. The beliefs and life in the middle-ages are large factors in the plot. Some members of our book club found it dark and gruesome, but that is how it was then. It is a quick read with plenty to keep the reader interested.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am really torn on rating this book. The story and characters were gripping, but a publishing "mistake" drove me mad. Why put each of the internal "stories" in such fine print that even a magnifying glass would not allow them to be comfortably read? Very distracting and inexcusable!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fascinating and a real page turner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you enjoy historical fiction, I highly recommend this. Great atmospheric tale set during the plague in England. Interesting storyline and characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I don't know why but this book grabs your attention and keeps it all the way through. I didn't put it down, the characters are well described, but not so much that you know each one as soon as you meet them. They're running from the plague, which keeps the group moving. Could they really believe to out run it? Each person has a secret, and the secrets are slowly exposed to the other members of the group during the trek toward a "safe" town.I thought the ending was just great! This is one of those books you think about for days after you finish it! I told all my family and friends about this book and I haven't done that since those Dan Brown books came out~
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sarah Taylor More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. I couldn't put it down. I love medieval stories, and this is one of the best i ever read. However, i found the ending to be disappointing. It was like maitland wrote a great book, got to the end, and didn't know how to end it. I just wish there had been a sequel. However, i like this book enough to buy it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago