When the charred body of a woman is found in the remains, Wykeham fears for his reputation and his life. The Archbishop of York, John Thoresby, turns to the one-eyed spy, Owen Archer, for help.
Archer, preoccupied by his wife’s tragic miscarriage, reluctantly agrees to investigate the case. But the attempt on Wykeham’s life runs deeper than anyone suspects. This tangled web includes knights, bishops, and even kings. When Archer discovers that the dead woman is a midwife known to all of York, including his wife, this dangerous plot is brought to his very home.
"Lively, endearingly detailed...a convincing plot and a believable cast of characters."KIRKUS
"A nice addition to the series, with Robb's good character development and domestic detail..."LIBRARY JOURNAL
"Owen Archer returns to solve another medieval mystery grounded in the intrigue spawned by the bitter rivalry among King Edward III's sons...Once again, Robb provides the reader with an evocative and suspenseful whodunit thoroughly bolstered by a wealth of authentic historical detail."BOOKLIST
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The Bishop's Troubles
Owen Archer crouched beside the unmoving figure. "My lord, are you injured?" As he searched for a pulse the bishop stirred beneath him.
Slowly Wykeham raised his head. "Archer. I do not think I am injured." He was very pale and his breathing shallow.
By now masons and soldiers crowded round the kneeling pair, and Alain, one of the bishop's clerks, assisted Owen in helping Wykeham to his feet.
"My lord —" Alain shook debris from his master's robes.
Once on his feet Wykeham held himself erect. "I must remove myself from the danger," he said, stumbling as he stepped away from Alain.
The clerk caught his arm. Excellent reflexes for a man who looked to Owen a pampered noble. The crowd parted for Wykeham and Alain. Owen followed close behind.
Halfway through the palace garden the bishop's other clerk accosted Owen.
"Your men were to guard Bishop William," Guy said, shielding his eyes and squinting at Owen. He had the ruined sight and stained fingers of a scholar.
"Your master has much experience on building sites," Owen said. "He knows they are unsafe, that he must have a care."
"Are you calling him careless?" Guy demanded.
One of Thoresby's servants saved Owen, summoning him to the archbishop's parlor.
"I shall see to Bishop William," Brother Michaelo assured him.
As Owen entered Thoresby's parlor the aging archbishop reached down to a fist-sized clump of something on the table before him and poked idly at it, making it flake and finally crumble.
"Your Grace," Owen said.
Thoresby did not look up. "Crushed stone," he said. "Better than a crushed skull, that is what you are thinking." Now the archbishop raised his head, fixed his deep-set eyes on Owen. "But you must do much better than that, Archer. Wykeham's enemies must not find him easy prey while he is a guest in my household." Aged he might be, but when Thoresby spoke in such a quiet voice it raised the hackles on Owen's neck as it always had.
"It might have been an accident, Your Grace."
"He must not have accidents while here."
"He would have been safe had he not slipped away."
"It is your duty to ensure his safety with or without his cooperation."
A curse rose in Owen's throat, but he swallowed it back.
"How did this happen, Archer?"
"He chafes at such close guard, Your Grace."
"Chafes," Thoresby growled, turning away. "Has there ever lived a being more dangerous to himself than this obstinate and contradictory bishop? He swallows his pride to appease friends of Lancaster, but rides openly across the country to prove he is not afraid of the duke, belatedly worries about his safety and demands a constant guard, then escapes his guard to prove — what? Damn him." The archbishop turned back, his bony face twisted in temper. "He won't be caught here in York, Archer, I won't have it!" He pounded the table, flattening the pile of crushed stone.
Owen knew his best defense was silence.
Thoresby pressed his temples and muttered a prayer, composing himself. "Perhaps he realizes he has overestimated his importance to Lancaster."
Owen judged it safe to speak. "I do wonder about this issue with the duke. He is sailing home with his new wife, aye, and will be closer to Wykeham than he has been in a long while. But he comes to plot his acquisition of the crown of Castile and León, does he not?" Lancaster had recently wed Constance, the daughter of the late King Pedro of Castile. "He has far more important things to consider than his irritation with the bishop."
"Lancaster's net is wide, his coffers deep, and the number of his retainers greater than that of any man in the realm save his father the king. Wykeham is right to fear him. But I do not understand this chafing you speak of. He asked for my protection. Indeed, he asked for you by name. Have you offended him, Archer?"
"If I have, I know not how." Owen did not like the way Thoresby was studying him.
"He has asked many questions about your time in Wales. You were working for Lancaster — I'd forgotten that."
"On your orders, Your Grace." Owen did not believe Thoresby had forgotten that. He had recommended Owen to the duke. Owen had not gone willingly. The inducement had been the opportunity to accompany his father-in-law, Sir Robert, on a pilgrimage to the holy city of St. David's, fulfilling a dream that Owen could not deny the elderly man. Owen's assistance had been Thoresby's gift to Lancaster to ensure his continuing favor now that Thoresby and the king were at odds.
"You returned long after the work for which Lancaster said he needed you had been completed," Thoresby's expression grew cold. "Perhaps Wykeham knows something I do not, is that it? I did not ask enough questions about that time? Did Lancaster give you any instructions to which I was not privy?"
This was a twist Owen had not anticipated, that Wykeham might mistrust his Lancastrian connections. He prayed Thoresby could not see the twitching of his blind eye beneath the patch. "He did not speak of the bishop of Winchester."
"He spoke only of the missions you know of." It was ludicrous for Thoresby to question Owen so. "I chose to serve you rather than the duke of Lancaster."
"That was many years ago. A man can change his mind. What did you do in St. David's?"
"Your Grace, you know that I remained on the orders of the archdeacon of St. David's."
"I know some of the tale, but I do not believe I know all."
And Owen did not wish him to know more. For in Wales Owen had been indiscreet — to the point of treason. But it had to do with the desire of his Welsh countrymen to thrust off the yoke of England, not with Lancaster's machinations. It was quite possible that Wykeham knew of Owen's flirtation with treason, having been lord chancellor at the time. Owen had thought himself safe. It was more than a year ago that he had returned, and in that time no one had confronted him about it. Perhaps there had simply been no need to use the information until now.
"Perhaps I should question Brother Michaelo," Thoresby said. His secretary, Michaelo, had accompanied Owen to Wales, though he had returned to York before Owen was delayed in St. David's.
It was plain Owen must humble himself, not give Thoresby cause to probe. "I'll speak to my men, Your Grace, impress upon them the importance of the bishop's safety."
Thoresby lowered himself down into his cushioned chair. "Good." He pushed the crumbled stone aside. "How is your wife?"
"She has regained much of her strength, Your Grace."
"I keep her and all your family in my prayers," Thoresby said in a quiet voice that held no threats.
Crouching atop the masons' scaffolding, Owen Archer looked down on the pile of stones and tiles stacked in the south yard of York Minster, more than thrice a man's height. He was looking for signs that someone had climbed the mound and waited for the bishop of Winchester to walk past two days earlier. But it was no good — Owen needed to get closer. Holding on to the scaffolding with one hand, he stepped down onto the pile and balanced there, testing its stability. A few tiles moved, but he was able to find a reasonably firm footing. Slowly shifting his weight, he lowered himself into a crouch on the stones and tiles.
"I cannot see you now, Captain," shouted Luke, a mason who stood below.
So someone could have hidden up here, out of sight of the bishop as he walked by.
"Now back up toward the south transept," Owen shouted.
Shortly, Luke came into view. "I see you now."
On hands and knees, Owen pressed lower.
"Gone now." The mason laughed self-consciously.
Grabbing a tile, Owen crawled forward with an uneven motion. "Now walk toward the chapel again," he called.
The mason soon reappeared, and Owen rose a little and tossed the tile, then flattened again. He felt the pile shift beneath him, but kept his head down.
"Just missed, Captain, and I do not think I would have seen you if I had not known to look."
Owen sniffed, rolled over onto his side, eased up on his knees. Unless his sense of smell had weakened with his easy life, it was human urine he smelled. A long watch challenged a man's bladder. Someone might have lain in wait here, though he would have risked being seen. As Owen crawled back toward the scaffolding he was visible to several of the masons at work on the chapel. Surely they would have noted an intruder in such an unusual place. They claimed they had been working on a different wall that day, farther down, but the supposed attacker could not have foreseen that. Most baffling was the question of how the person had hoped to predict precisely when Wykeham would wander toward the masons. With his well- known passion for building it was inevitable the bishop would frequent the site while he was staying at the archbishop's palace next door, but someone would have needed to lurk on the stack indefinitely. Owen thought it unlikely.
"I am coming down," he called.
Once more on the scaffolding he had a view of the city, the Ouse Valley, the Forest of Galtres. He looked away and climbed down. In his youth such heights had not bothered Owen, but since losing the sight in his left eye he did not trust his judgment of just where the edge lay, doubting what he thought he saw, unsure of his balance.
Some placed the blame for what had happened to Wykeham at the feet of Sir Ranulf's family. Owen could not believe they were involved. Proud they were, and angry about what had befallen Sir Ranulf, but surely they would not stoop to such depths to seek vengeance. Wykeham himself suspected John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster. With the king in his dotage and Prince Edward an invalid, the king's second living son was eager to establish his power, and weaning the king from Wykeham was rumored to be a high priority. But Owen could not imagine the duke behind such an act, either. In fact, he thought the incident had probably been an accident, with no one but a careless worker to blame for it.
Luke was waiting at the foot of the scaffolding. "I heard you moving around up there. But I do not suppose the bishop would have made note of such noises. He would have thought it was one of us."
"You stand by your statement that you saw no one lurking about?"
Luke stiffened. "Why should I lie, Captain?"
"Why indeed." Owen silently noted that the mason had answered a question with a question.
Luke reached up — Owen was taller than most men — and touched the beard that followed Owen's jawline. "Your hair's so dark, the stone dust shows. It's on your curly pate as well."
Brushing dust from his hair, Owen thanked the mason for his assistance and headed for the minster gate. He suspected the mason was holding something back, perhaps the clumsiness of a fellow worker, but Owen had wasted enough of this fine day. There was much to do in the apothecary garden before the first frost, and he did not want Lucie to grow impatient and see to it herself. She was still weak. Bending still sometimes made her dizzy.
Just before Lammas day Lucie had fallen from a stool while replacing a large jar on a shelf in her apothecary. The jar had badly bruised her left hand and cut her arm as it shattered. But far worse, she had lost the child who would have been born a few months hence. She had bled much during and after the accident, particularly when she lost the child, and her strength had been slow in returning despite Magda Digby's tisanes of watercress, nettle and beetroot, and her Aunt Phillippa's additional concoctions of eggs and cabbage. The physicks could not restore her spirit.
For days Lucie lay in bed whispering prayers of contrition. Cisotta, the young midwife who had attended Lucie in those first days, had assured Owen that women often behaved so after losing a child, some even after having a healthy baby. But when Magda Digby had returned from a birthing in the country and took over Lucie's care, Owen could see her concern.
Long after they had closed the account books Lucie and Owen lingered at the table in the hall in the pool of lamplight. Jasper, Lucie's apprentice and their adopted son, had gone to see a friend, and Phillippa and the children were in bed. Such a quiet moment seemed rare to Owen these days. Lucie did not seem to welcome idleness, but sought activity until she dropped onto the bed, exhausted. He knew she did not wish to think of the child they had lost. Even now her hands were not idle; she was tying mint sprigs together, her long, slender fingers moving quickly. The ghost of a smile touched her lips — in fact, her pretty face was alight with a calm contentment. She loved her garden almost as much as her first husband had, found in working with the plants a peace much as Owen's mother had so long ago in Wales. He wished Lucie might have known his mother — they had much in common, a gift for healing, for knowing the right combination of herbs and roots for a person's ailments. His mother would have liked the level regard with which Lucie viewed the world — though of late there was a darkness in her gaze.
Tonight Owen noted deep blue shadows beneath her eyes. "You should have left the mint harvest to me," he said.
"I took joy in it." She lifted one of the sprigs, held it close so he could smell it. "A few more days and it would be too late. Perhaps if Wykeham forgets about his mishap the other day you can help me with some of the other autumn chores."
"I am afraid he means to keep me occupied."
"I am sorry for that." As Lucie reached for another clump of mint she winced, withdrew her hand, and pressed the other to her shoulder.
"It is painful?"
"It aches, yes, but lying abed will not mend it." She shook her head at him. "And your worry weakens me." She had made this argument before. "You think — she fell once, she shall fall again. You think the accident has changed me forever."
He did not know how to answer this. It was true and not true. He knew now that it could happen. "I meant nothing but that I had promised to harvest the mint. Guarding the bishop of Winchester put it out of my mind. He wishes to ride to his former parish of Laughton. He means to rebuild the church."
"Where is that?"
"At the south end of the shire. Near Sheffield." Several days' ride, he guessed.
"He wishes to go soon?"
"Aye. He had thought to leave it until his business with the Pagnells was concluded. But Lady Pagnell refuses to see him yet. The journey would fill the time."
"Poor Emma. Her mother's presence is making everyone in her household ill at ease."
"She is a difficult woman?" He had met Lady Pagnell only at formal events.
"Yes, both she and her steward are intrusive guests. Emma came today, asking for a sleep potion for herself. I shall make up something to soothe her — Jasper!"
Their 14-year-old adopted son had come rushing in, panting and flushed from a good run, skidding to a halt by the table. Lucie steadied the pile of books as he dropped his hands onto the table, leaning, catching his breath. He raked his pale hair back from his face with an impatient gesture. "There is a fire in Petergate. The house of the bishop of Winchester."
"God have mercy." Owen got to his feet. So did Lucie. He leaned across the table, took her hand. "Stay within, eh? One of us heading into danger is enough."
She shook her head. "I can help those who breathe too much smoke. Passing 'round a soothing drink is not dangerous."
He did not like it, but he saw she was determined. "Aye, you are right." He grabbed a cloth from a basket of laundry by the door to the kitchen, thinking he might need something to protect his nose and mouth from smoke, then headed for the door.
Jasper was right behind him with a bucket.CHAPTER 2
A Fire in Petergate
Smoke already masked the October smells when Owen stepped out into St. Helen's Square. Shouts drifted down from the scene. Owen looked up, expecting to see the glow of fire in the sky above Petergate. But the sky was a deep blue, the stars silvery white. Perhaps God was with them and the fire had been caught early. People ran past him. By the time Owen reached the top of Stonegate several chains of folk stretched along Petergate passing buckets of water from the nearest wells. A boy clutching an empty bucket emerged from the smoke near the burning house and headed down one of the lines. Another followed close behind.
Owen stopped him. "Where is the fire? I see no flames."
"The fire is down below, in the undercroft, Captain. They pulled out a servant — his clothes ablaze. They doused him with water and rolled him in the dirt. The other is dead, they say. A maidservant."
Owen let him go, hurried on. The street was already slippery with spilled water. As he moved closer the vision in his one good eye blurred with the smoke that belched from the undercroft doorway. The walls of the undercroft were stone, as was the roof tile, but the support posts and the story above were of timber. Near the door stood Godwin Fitzbaldric, the bishop's new tenant, here in York only a few months. He was calling out orders, hurrying the bucket wielders along. His face was streaked with soot, his shirt torn. He was a tall man, leaning toward fleshiness, almost bald but for a dusting of dull red hair running from temple to temple across the back of his head.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Cross-Legged Knight"
Copyright © 2006 Candace Robb.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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