Under the pretense of escorting his father-in-law and the archbishop’s secretary on a pilgrimage to the sacred city of St. David’s in Wales, Owen Archer and Geoffrey Chaucer, in truth, are carrying out a mission for the Duke of Lancaster. England and France are at war, and the southern coast of Wales is vulnerable to invasionOwen and Geoffrey are to recruit archers for the duke’s army and inspect his Welsh fortifications on the coast, while quietly investigating whether the duke’s steward at Cydweli Castle is involved in a French plot to incite rebellion in Wales.
But trouble precedes them in the cathedral city of St. David’s. On Whitesands Beach beyond the city a young man is beaten and left for dead, then spirited away by a Welsh bard. Shortly afterward a corpse clothed in the livery of the Duke of Lancaster is left at the city gate, his shoes filled with white sand. Meanwhile, at Cydweli Castle, a chain of events begun by the theft of money from the castle’s exchequer ends in a violent death and the disappearance of the steward’s beautiful young wife. Owen and Geoffrey begin to see connections linking the troubles in city and castle, and learn they must unravel the complex story of betrayed love and political ambition to prevent more deaths. But in the course of his investigations in the land of his birth, Owen is haunted by doubts about his own loyalties...
About the Author
Candace M. Robb, author of The Apothecary Rose, The Lady Chapel, The Nun's Tale, The King's Bishop, and The Riddle of St. Leonard's, lives with her family in Seattle, Washington, and makes frequent trips to England to research her novels. She writes full-time.
Read an Excerpt
Owen Archer ached from days of riding. The journey into southern Wales was proving a painful lesson in how sedentary he had become in York; though all men said marriage and family softened a man, as captain of the Archbishop of York's retainers and one who trained archers, Owen had thought himself an exception. The ride was also a reminder of how solitary was a winter journey, no matter how large the company. With head tucked deep inside a hood that dripped incessantly, a rider limited conversation to the bare necessities.
Most riders, that is. Two of his companions behaved otherwise. Even now, as they made their way through a forest of limbs bent, twisted and snapped by a relentless gale, where they must guide their horses and be ready to duck and sidestep trouble, their voices rose in argument.
'The wind at home is never so fierce,' Sir Robert D'Arby shouted.
'It is so and more, Sir Robert,' Brother Michaelo retorted. 'You do not enjoy being a wayfaring man, is all. I for one see no difference between this weather and that of the North Country.'
'You dare to speak to me of being a wayfaring man — you, who think silk sheets and down cushions are appropriate for a pilgrim? I have endured years of real pilgrimage.'
'Yes, yes, the Holy Land, Rome, Compostela, I know,' Brother Michaelo said. 'There are worse sins in life than fine bedclothes.' He bowed his head and tugged his hood farther over his face.
'Sybarite,' Sir Robert muttered.
Owen thought his father-in-law and the archbishop's secretary worse than warring children in their ceaseless bickering over trifles. He did his best to ignore them. Geoffrey Chaucer, on the other hand, rode close to them and listened with a smile.
'You find them amusing,' Owen said. 'I would prefer them muzzled.'
Geoffrey laughed. 'Most of their arguments are predictable and repetitive, it is true, but at times they delight with their inventiveness. I wait for such moments. Listen — Sir Robert has changed the subject.'
'Would that we had left earlier so we might reach the shrine of St David on his feast day,' Owen's father-in-law said.
'We would have ridden to our deaths in a winter storm and never reached St David's,' Michaelo said while holding a branch aside for his elderly antagonist.
Geoffrey nodded. 'It is a game to the monk, this argument.'
Owen understood that. And yet not entirely a game. The monk worried that Sir Robert would prevail and have him decked out in the rough robe of a pilgrim, sleeping on the cold, damp, root-infested earth of the forest. Sir Robert wore a long, russet-coloured robe of coarse wool with a cross on the sleeve, and a large round hat with a broad brim turned up at the front to show his pilgrim badges, of which he was justly proud, particularly the scallop shell. Hanging from his neck was a pilgrim's scrip, a large knife, a flask for water and a rosary, and tied across his saddle was a bourdon. Not that he needed the purse of essentials and the walking stick, being well provisioned and on horseback.
'I am caught!' Sir Robert cried suddenly.
Owen hurried forward to retrieve his father-in-law from a thorny branch that had snagged the edge of his hood. 'You will insist on a wide-brimmed hat beneath your hood, that is the problem,' Owen said with little sympathy. 'It makes you a wider target to snag.'
'Mark his words, Sir Robert,' Michaelo chimed in, 'it is as I have been telling you.'
Sir Robert did not even turn in Michaelo's direction. 'I am a pilgrim,' he said to Owen. 'I must wear the garb. It is little enough I do.'
'At your age the journeying itself is enough. Your daughter will have my head if any harm comes to you while in my company.'
'Lucie is more reasonable than that.'
Perhaps. It seemed so long ago that they had said their farewells in York. And it would be so much longer before Owen heard news of his family — his wife and children. Sir Robert did not ease the loneliness; in truth Owen looked forward to seeing his father-in-law and Brother Michaelo safely to St David's and returning with Geoffrey to Cydweli.
But first there was the matter of Carreg Cennen, truly an outpost among the Duke of Lancaster's castles. Here they were to meet John de Reine, one of Lancaster's men from Cydweli.
The purpose of the meeting was to plan their recruiting strategy. Charles of France was reportedly preparing for an invasion of England. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, planned a counter-attack in summer. To that end, he needed more archers, and hoped to find good recruits in his Marcher lordships. He had requested the assistance of Owen Archer, former captain of archers for the previous Duke of Lancaster; asked Owen to journey to his lordships in southern Wales and select two vintaines of archers. John de Reine would then march the recruits to Plymouth in time for a summer sailing. Geoffrey Chaucer accompanied Owen because he was to observe and report on the garrisoning of the Duke's Welsh castles. The French always looked on the south-western coast of Wales as a good place for spies to slip into the country, and also as a possible landing area for an invasion army. Early in the year, King Edward had ordered that all castles along the coast were to be sufficiently garrisoned to defend themselves in an attack.
Owen and Geoffrey hoped to recruit a few archers from the area round Carreg Cennen and arrange for them to join the others in Cydweli later in the season. It would be good for the recruits to meet Reine, the one who would lead them to Plymouth.
The forest cover was thick, hiding the castle from view until it seemed suddenly to rear out of the valley of the River Cennen on its limestone crag.
'God meant this site for a fortification,' Sir Robert said, crossing himself. 'But it is no place one wishes to stay long.'
'Where is the village?' Brother Michaelo asked. 'On the far side?'
'There is no village,' Geoffrey said. 'Carreg Cennen is a castle, no more. Only those essential to the garrison and, at present, those working on repairs live within the walls.'
'God have mercy on us,' Michaelo muttered. 'How long do we stay?'
'A day or two,' Geoffrey said. 'I confess it does not look inviting.'
Owen thought otherwise. He had reined in his horse to admire the castle, rising up from the bowl of the valley like a statue in a fountain. The Black Mountains cradled it, and yet the limestone crag with its crowning castle seemed alone, solitary, remote. Something from myth, something one might ride towards forever and never reach. He had forgotten how beautiful his country was, how full of a mystery that seemed the stuff of ballads.
But he did not share such thoughts with his companions. 'How many in this garrison?' he asked.
'Twenty at present,' Geoffrey said. 'A crowd for such a remote place.'
'The Duke believes the French will penetrate so far?'
'It is unlikely, but if they did, they might find many sympathetic to their cause in these mountains.'
'Ah. So Carreg Cennen protects itself against the countryside.'
Geoffrey glanced uneasily at Owen. 'You know, my friend, you must take care else you begin to sound like one of your rebellious countrymen.'
Owen laughed. 'Come. We were expected yesterday. John de Reine will return to Cydweli without us.'
They had been delayed by swollen streams between Monmouth and Carreg Cennen. And Sir Robert's lagging energy. They did not speak of it, but they had slowed their pace as his cough worsened. The River Cennen had given them no trouble, but their climb to the castle was slow, as they followed the narrow track around the valley to the north-east approach, where the steep limestone outcrop gave way to a gentler slope. Such a slow progress gave the guards ample time to make note of a company of fourteen and identify their livery, and by the time they reached the outer gate the doors were opened.
As he dismounted and led his horse through the gateway, Owen paused to admire the design of the barbican. Immediately after entering the outer gateway the party was forced to turn right, which would give defenders on the northeast tower an excellent target as an intruder halted, confused. And as they turned right, a pivoting drawbridge was lowered by a man up above in a small gate tower.
'They have little need for a garrison,' Geoffrey said. 'This castle defends itself.'
Beyond the small tower lay yet another drawbridge, guarded by an even larger, quite formidable tower. And again, they must turn sharply to enter into the inner ward.
'Twenty men does seem too many,' Owen said. 'A man to control each drawbridge and one for the gate, they have need of few more.'
'What could be so precious here?' Michaelo asked.
'Passage through the valley,' Sir Robert said. 'That is plain.'
'Aye, to one trained in warfare it is plain,' Brother Michaelo muttered. 'I see an inhospitable place.'
'This is naught compared with the mountains of Gwynedd,' Owen said.
'Then I thank God Lancaster has no holdings to the north.'
As the portcullis rose in a wheezy grumble, a large, rough-visaged man stepped through, better dressed than the rest and with an air of authority, though when he spoke he revealed blackened teeth, unusual in Lancaster's captains. 'Will Tyler,' he said with a bob of the head, 'constable of Carreg Cennen. I bid you welcome.' Turning, he led them into the inner courtyard, where he invited Owen, Geoffrey, Sir Robert and Brother Michaelo into a modest room in which burned a most welcome fire. The rest of their company were escorted to the kitchen.
Owen was on his second cup of ale before he spoke, mentioning Lascelles's man, John de Reine.
Tyler gave Owen a look of surprise. 'Your accent. You are a Welshman?'
'Unusual? In what way? Are we not in Wales, where one might expect a multitude of Welshmen?'
'I am not accustomed to dealing with any on — official business.' Tyler shook his head. 'But no matter. As to your question, we have welcomed only you since the workmen arrived from the east. Travellers with English names are ever welcome here, we turn none away.'
'You have had trouble with the Welsh?' Geoffrey asked.
'Not while I have been here, but we are always ready. And we have no Welsh in the garrison. They are a queer race, barefooted and bare legged most of the time, and the shiftiest shave their heads so they may run through the brush more easily, but leave hair on their upper lips to show it is their choice to be thus shorn. A sly, violent people. There is no telling when they will turn — begging your forgiveness, Captain. But you are Lancaster's man or he would not have trusted you here, so I doubt you take it amiss.'
Owen had meant to keep his counsel, but this rotten-toothed man with his foul-smelling breath and rude manner was more than he could bear. 'You look equally unsavoury to my people, Constable. And as you were never invited into our land, I cannot see why you would expect courteous cooperation. But no, I do not take it amiss, for I am sure that rather than thinking for yourself you merely echo the opinion of others.'
The constable nodded towards Geoffrey as if to say, 'You see what I mean about them?'
'My son-in-law is testy after breaking up countless disputes between myself and Brother Michaelo,' Sir Robert said. 'But we cannot deny that we English arrived uninvited and robbed the people of their sovereignty.' Sir Robert raised his hand as the constable opened his mouth to protest. 'I say this not for the sake of argument, but rather to understand. Is that why your numbers here at Carreg Cennen have swelled? Because you expect the Welsh to turn traitor to us if the French get this far?'
Looking slightly frazzled by the shifting mood of the group, Tyler replied to Sir Robert. 'Oh aye. This has ever been a difficult place for us.'
Sir Robert smiled at Owen's puzzled expression and nodded slightly, as if to warn him to desist. Which was good advice, though less satisfying than shocking the constable out of his complacency.
'You have seen nothing of a contingent from Cydweli?' Owen asked Tyler again. 'Nor received a messenger?'
Tyler shook his head. 'Rivers swell this time of year. He may be delayed. But you will be in Cydweli soon, eh? Time enough. I have no spare archers to offer you in any case. Come now. My man will show you where you will rest your heads. And tonight we shall have a merry feast of it. I am eager to hear all the gossip of the realm.' Tyler nodded at Brother Michaelo. 'We would be grateful for a Mass while you are here, Father. It has been some time now since we lost our chaplain. The good bishop has been slow in sending us another.'
Michaelo, who had closed his eyes and tucked his hands up his sleeves as soon as he had quenched his thirst, looking for all the world like a monk lost in prayer (to those who did not know him), frowned now at the constable. 'Lost your chaplain? How?'
'He tumbled down the crag trying to follow his hound.' Michaelo crossed himself. 'Your chaplain had need of a hound's protection?'
'Nay, Father, he loved the hunt, he did.'
Michaelo glanced at Owen. 'I begin to see your point.' To Tyler, he said, 'Not "Father", but "Brother". I am not a priest.'
Looking more uneasy by the moment about playing host to this party, the constable nodded and said briskly, 'An honest mistake — Brother. God go with you gentlemen. You are most welcome here. My man will show you to your chambers now.'
The travellers rose reluctantly, loath to part with the fire.
'Watch where you step in the ward,' Tyler's man warned as they walked out into drizzle.
It was good advice. The rock on which the castle sat crested here in the inner ward, rising in a shallow, uneven dome. No one apparently saw the need to chip it down and smooth it out. It was a small ward, and in less than a dozen steps they were climbing a stairway to the rooms in the east wall; they were given sleeping chambers on either side of the chapel — narrow, dark, damp and chilled by the wind that rose up the cliff and past the lime kiln, giving the air a chalky scent. But each room had a brazier, already lit, and the pallets were piled with blankets and skins.
'Jumping with fleas, no doubt,' Michaelo said as he lifted one gingerly. 'The constable and his men smell like beasts in a stable.'
'You expected courtiers?' Geoffrey said with an exaggerated bow. 'In an isolated outpost?'
'A Mass. I am surprised they noticed their chaplain's absence.'
'Fighting men are ever concerned about their souls,' Sir Robert said. 'You will not notice their odour when they are saving your neck.'
'You saved our necks with your softening of Owen's tirade,' Michaelo said. 'I am eager to leave this wilderness and continue on to St David's.' The archbishop's secretary was the only one in the group who had but a single purpose, to complete his pilgrimage to St David's in a belated rush of penitence for a past sin. Though Sir Robert seemed the most earnest pilgrim he also hoped to help Owen and Geoffrey with what had been meant to be a secret aspect of their mission, ascertaining where the loyalties of the Welsh lay. Not that Owen had confided in his father-in-law, but Sir Robert was adept at feigning sleep in order to eavesdrop.
'We will wait a few days for Reine,' Owen said. Tyler was right. Just as they had been delayed by the wet weather, so might Reine and his men be delayed in their journey from Cydweli. 'And so that we might enjoy peace in our party, I propose that Geoffrey and Michaelo share a room, and I sleep with Sir Robert,' Owen said.
Geoffrey thought it an excellent suggestion.
Owen and Sir Robert moved on to the room opposite. As soon as the door was closed, Owen expressed his surprise at the last part of Sir Robert's comment to the constable, that there had been some truth in what Owen had said about the English and the Welsh.
As his father-in-law eased down on to the side of the cot closest to the lit brazier, he glanced at Owen with a fierce scowl that was not that of a man who considered himself complimented. 'You have listened too long to my daughter, who believes soldiering robbed me of any ability to contemplate mankind's state.' Sir Robert's voice was a weary whisper, but his expression kept Owen from interrupting to offer him comfort. 'I have noticed much that has dismayed me about the treatment of the folk as we have journeyed into Wales. I do not, however, believe it wise to express one's views too openly. You have come here as Lancaster's man. It is not your place to criticise his actions.'
'You are right.'
'You made us all uneasy.'
'That was not my purpose. I wished only to make Tyler uneasy.'
'Which you did. Is that wise? If there is trouble, we might depend upon him for our safety. I hardly think your people, as you call them, would consider you one of them while wearing the Duke's livery and a Norman beard.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Gift of Sanctuary"
Copyright © 1998 Candace Robb.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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.