The second book in the critically acclaimed medieval mystery series featuring Sir Geoffrey Mappestone
In the year 1101, Sir Geoffrey Mappestone returns to his home at Goodrich Castle on the Welsh border. He is travelling in the company of a knight who claims to be carrying an urgent message for King Henry I. When the knight is killed during an ambush, Geoffrey feels obliged to deliver the message to the King himself, but quickly regrets his decision when the King orders him to spy on his own family in order to ferret out a dangerous traitor.
Geoffrey returns home to find his father gravely ill and his older brothers and sister each determined to inherit the Mappestone estate. Geoffrey's father claims he is being poisoned by one of his own children, a claim no one takes seriously until he is found murdered with his own knife in the dead of night.
Geoffrey's investigation of the murder, however, takes him far beyond a family quarrel. Accusations are flying, and Geoffrey must prove his own innocence in the face of greed and fear. The villainous Earl of Shrewsbury is clearly implicated, and as Geoffrey delves deeper, he discovers a plot that reaches far beyond the realm of Goodrich Castle to that of the entire kingdom: the assassination of the King.
About the Author
Simon Beaufort is a pseudonym for a pair of academics formerly at the University of Cambridge, both now full-time writers. One is an award-winning historian, the other a successful crime writer under the name Susanna Gregory.
Read an Excerpt
A Head for Poisoning
By Simon Beaufort
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 Simon Beaufort
All rights reserved.
Sir Geoffrey Mappestone glanced around uneasily, and wondered whether he had been wise to trust the directions of his sergeant, Will Helbye, over his own vague recollections of the area. The misty countryside was silent except for the soft thud of horses" hooves on the frozen turf and the occasional clink of metal from the harnesses. He cast Helbye a doubtful look, and peered through the fog in a vain attempt to locate some familiar landmark that would reassure him he was still on English soil, and had not wandered inadvertently into the hostile territories governed by the Welsh princes.
"Are you sure your sergeant knows what he is doing?" demanded Sir Aumary de Breteuil, spurring his splendid destrier forward so that he could ride abreast of Geoffrey. "The King will not be pleased if he hears you have led me astray."
"I did not ask you to travel with us," said Geoffrey, finally nettled into irritability by the other knight's continual complaints. "If your messages to the King are so vital, why did he not send an escort for you from Portsmouth, instead of leaving you to fend for yourself?"
Aumary shot him an unpleasant look. "Secret business of state," he said pompously. "I was directed to make my appearance at the castle in Chepstow as unobtrusively as possible, in order to mask the momentous nature of the writs I carry."
Not for the first time on their six-day journey from the coast, Sir Aumary patted the small leather pouch that was tucked inside his surcoat, a self-important smile on his face.
"You have done an admirable job," said Geoffrey dryly, taking in the other knight's handsome war-horse, exquisite cloak, and gleaming chain-mail. "No one would ever guess you are a knight of some wealth and standing."
"Quite so," said Aumary smugly, oblivious to the irony in Geoffrey's tone. "And it has not been easy, I can tell you — I have had no servants to care for my needs, and I have been forced to ride in the company of Holy Land ruffians." He looked disparagingly at Helbye and the two men- at-arms behind him who, like Geoffrey, wore the cross on their armour that marked them as Crusaders.
"I do hope you are not referring to me," said Geoffrey mildly.
He lifted his shield from where it lay over the pommel of his saddle, and slid his mailed arm through its straps. Sir Aumary was right to be apprehensive about the area, and Geoffrey was considering turning around and riding back the way they had come.
"Of course not!" said Aumary quickly, mistaking Geoffrey's precautionary action as a threat.
In contrast to Aumary's immaculate appearance, Geoffrey was clad in a hard-wearing, functional surcoat, stained with travel and with its Crusader's cross emblazoned on the back. His chain-mail was stronger, heavier, and had seen considerably more use than Aumary's, while his broadsword, Aumary knew, had edges that could slice as easily through armour as through butter. Aumary had no intention of fighting the younger knight when he knew he would lose. He turned to address Helbye, to remove himself from a conversation that was becoming uncomfortable.
"Where are we? How much farther is it to Goodrich Castle?"
"We are on the correct road," insisted Helbye, growing weary of Aumary's constant questioning. "We turned right at Penncreic; straight would have taken us to Lann Martin in Wales." He shuddered. "And the Lord knows we do not want to be there!"
Geoffrey could not agree more, and continued to scan the dense, still forest for something he might recognise. Surely, he thought, he could not have forgotten so much about his home during his twenty-year absence? The silence made him uneasy: he did not recall the lands around his father's manor ever being quite so soundless, even during the winter. His wariness began to transmit itself to Robin Barlow and Mark Ingram, his men-at-arms, and Geoffrey saw them draw their daggers. Trotting at the side of his horse, Geoffrey's dog growled deep in its throat, as if it could sense something amiss.
Suddenly, the silence was rent by an ungodly howl, and it was only the backwards start of his horse that saved Geoffrey from the arrow that hissed past his face. His raised shield protected him from the next one, deflecting it harmlessly to the ground. Behind him, Sir Aumary fought to control his own destrier, since, for all its splendid looks, it was a poorly trained beast and was whinnying and bucking in alarm at the speed of the attack. Geoffrey hauled his heavy broadsword from his belt, and wrenched his horse's head round, yelling to his men to retreat the way they had come. Barlow blocked his way, his mount insane with terror and pain from an arrow that protruded from its neck.
"Go back!" shouted Geoffrey to Aumary, Helbye, and Ingram, thinking that they might yet escape the ambush, even if he and Barlow could not. Then Geoffrey's attention was away from the bewildered soldiers, and he was fighting for his own life. Men darted from the forest, rising from where they had been crouching behind tree-trunks, or lying under piles of leaves. Geoffrey did not take the time to count them, but began to strike out, wielding his sword with one hand, and using his shield to fend off attacks with the other.
The air rang with yelling and howling, and dirty hands clawed and grabbed at Geoffrey's legs and reins, trying to drag him from his mount. He clung tightly with his knees, knowing that to fall might mean his death. A Norman knight on horseback was a formidable force, but on foot he was slow and encumbered by the heavy chain-mail that protected him.
He smashed the hilt of his sword into the shoulder of the man who was attempting to hack through the straps of his saddle with a knife, and kicked another, catching him a hefty blow on the chin that sent him reeling. Seeing their comrades down, the ambushers backed away, knowing that they were helpless against the superior fighting skills of a fully armed Norman warrior. Instead they formed a circle around him, muttering menacingly and brandishing their motley assortment of weapons.
Given a moment to observe them, Geoffrey saw that they were not hardened outlaws at all, but just villagers, nervously clutching a bizarre arsenal of ancient swords and crudely fashioned staves in a way that suggested they were not familiar with their use. He seized his opportunity, and spurred his horse forward, sending them scattering before him to escape the thundering hooves.
Meanwhile, Barlow had abandoned his dying horse, and was backed up against a tree, struggling to keep the wild stabs of his attackers" knives and hoes at bay with a sturdy cudgel. Geoffrey galloped towards him, using his sword to drive away those who did not flee from his furious advance. He hauled the gasping Barlow up behind him, and urged his horse back the way they had come, looking for his companions.
Helbye and Ingram had not managed to travel far. They were surrounded by a gaggle of triumphantly shrieking villagers, but at least they were still mounted. Without decreasing his speed, Geoffrey tore towards them, grimly satisfied as the would-be ambushers dropped their weapons and ran for their lives.
Someone was shouting in Welsh, and Geoffrey, who recalled enough of the language from his childhood to understand it, heard that it was a desperate call to retreat. He homed in on the voice, and leapt from his saddle.
It was over in moments. Seeing Geoffrey's sword at their leader's throat, the villagers immediately abandoned their fight, and the ambush fizzled out as quickly as it had begun. Breathing hard, Geoffrey waited until Helbye, Ingram, and Barlow were ranged behind him, and then studied the face of the man he held captive. The chief villager was sturdily built, and had curly black hair and dark eyes. His clothes were plain and practical, although they were cleaner and of a better quality than those of his men. He met Geoffrey's curious gaze with a hard stare of his own.
"What are you waiting for?" said Ingram in a hoarse whisper that carried to every one of the villagers who watched the scene with a combination of defeat and fear. "Why do you not strike him dead, Sir Geoffrey?"
"So I was right in my assumption when I attacked you," said Geoffrey's prisoner in poor Norman French, making no effort to disguise the loathing in his voice. "You are Geoffrey Mappestone. I heard you were due to return from the Crusade this winter."
"I am afraid you have the advantage of me," said Geoffrey, also in Norman French, the sword still pointed unwavering at the man's neck. "I do not know you."
"Caerdig of Lann Martin," the man replied. He looked with contempt at Geoffrey's sword. "It would have been courteous of you to learn my name, since you see fit to wander uninvited on my land. This wood has been mine since your brother Henry lost his illegal claim to it in the courts."
So, they were in Lann Martin — the place where Geoffrey had least wanted to be, since he knew from his sister's letters that ownership of it was hotly contested, and that unexpected visitors were invariably dispatched long before they had time to explain their business. He shot Helbye a withering look for his incompetent navigation.
"I apologise for trespassing," said Geoffrey, addressing Caerdig. "It has been so many years since I was last here, that I no longer remember the way from Penncreic to Goodrich."
And now what? Geoffrey thought. He and his men were outnumbered at least six to one and, while he was certain he could win any fair fight, he knew he would not get far if there were archers hidden in trees or pit traps dug across the road. He saw he had two choices: he could slay each and every one of the villagers who stood in a nervous semicircle around him to ensure his safe passage, or he could negotiate a truce.
Most Norman knights would have opted for the former, but Geoffrey had no quarrel with men who had been trying to defend their village from what had probably appeared to be a hostile visit. Geoffrey was sure that Sir Aumary of Breteuil would claim that the attack on him was a direct act of aggression against the King, but while the attempted ambush of a royal messenger would doubtless not please His Majesty, retribution was for him to take, not Geoffrey.
Geoffrey had neither wanted nor enjoyed the pompous knight's company during their journey from Portsmouth to the Forest of Dene on the Welsh border, and he certainly did not feel responsible for the man. In fact, Geoffrey had hoped that Aumary would have left them long before, but Aumary knew a good thing when he saw one, and he had realised he would do well to stay in the company of the competent, intelligent Crusader knight and his battle-honed men-at-arms.
Geoffrey made his decision and gestured to the path with his free hand as he spoke to Caerdig. "If you will agree to grant us safe passage, we will leave your lands by the quickest possible route. We have no wish for more fighting."
"What?" Geoffrey heard Ingram breathe to Barlow. "We were winning! We could have had this manor of Lann Martin for ourselves!"
"Why would we want it?" Barlow whispered back, casting disparaging eyes over the gloomy forest with its matted tangle of undergrowth.
Geoffrey silenced them with a glare, and turned back to Caerdig. "We want only to return to our homes. Your dispute with my brother over Lann Martin is nothing to do with us."
Caerdig eyed Geoffrey narrowly, a humourless smile playing about his lips. "What are you proposing? That my people allow you to go free after you kill me?"
Geoffrey shook his head. "I suggest that we end this amicably, and that we each go our own way in peace."
Caerdig subjected Geoffrey to a long, appraising stare. "And how do you know my men will not shoot you as soon as you drop your sword from my throat?" He gestured to the forest path, the farthest stretch of which was swathed in an eerie grey mist. "I have archers watching."
Geoffrey gave the Welshman as searching a gaze as he had received. "You say you are from Lann Martin, and so you must be a relative of Ynys of Lann Martin. Ynys I remember very well, and he is a man whose integrity is beyond question. I will assume you have inherited his sense of honour, and will trust your word, once given."
Caerdig regarded him strangely. "Ynys was a virtuous man — before your brother Henry murdered him last summer. It seems your kinsmen have not informed you of their bloody deeds," he added, seeing Geoffrey's startled look. He sighed, and pushed Geoffrey's sword away from his throat. "But I give you my word, on Ynys's grave, that you and your men will be allowed to leave here unmolested. And as an act of good faith, I will escort you to the border myself — lest any of my men decides that he prizes revenge upon one of the filthy Mappestone brood above the honour of Lann Martin."
"Are relations between my father and Lann Martin so sour, then?" asked Geoffrey, sheathing his sword and turning to inspect his destrier.
He examined the animal carefully. War-horses were expensive, and not easy to buy: no self-respecting knight would neglect the beast that was strong enough to carry him and his many weapons into battle, would not shy from close combat, and yet was still fast enough to allow him to effect a fierce charge. There was a scratch on one fetlock, but it was nothing serious, and Geoffrey was not overly concerned. His dog materialised at his side, having emerged from wherever it had fled during the skirmish. It regarded Caerdig malevolently.
"Sour would be an understatement for our relationship," said Caerdig with a short, mirthless laugh. "And these last few months have been worse than ever. But it has not been your father's doing; it is the work of that corrupt rabble that call themselves his sons — your brothers."
He glowered at Geoffrey as though he were personally responsible.
"Does my father condone their behaviour?" asked Geoffrey, wondering whether his father could have changed so much since he had last seen him.
Sir Godric Mappestone was not a man whom anyone — his sons especially — would willingly cross. His temper and belligerence were legendary, and it was not for nothing that William the Conqueror had rewarded him so generously for his support at the Battle of Hastings and the following ruthless subjugation of the Saxons. In many ways, Geoffrey, the youngest of Godric's four sons, had been relieved when he had been sent away to begin his knightly training with the Duke of Normandy at the age of twelve. His earliest memories were of his father's black moods, when the entire household remained completely silent for days for fear that the slightest noise might bring Godric's wrath down upon them.
"Your father?" said Caerdig. "He is not in a position to do anything about your brothers."
Geoffrey's spirits sank. "Why not? Am I too late? Is he dead?"
Geoffrey had received a letter from his younger sister in October, telling him that their father was unwell. She had not made the situation sound serious, but it took months — and sometimes years — for letters to travel from England to Jerusalem, and news was usually long out of date by the time it reached its destination. This had happened with the news about Enide's own death. Because of the vagaries of travel, Geoffrey had received her letter telling him that his father was ill the same day as a curt note from his father's scribe informing him that she had died herself. By the time Geoffrey had read about her concerns for their father's health, Enide had been in her grave for at least six weeks.
He became aware that Caerdig was regarding him oddly.
"You do not know, do you?" said the Welshman softly.
"Know what?" asked Geoffrey, when Caerdig said no more, and the villagers, who had been listening, began to exchange meaningful glances.
"Your father is dying," said Caerdig bluntly. "He has been growing steadily weaker for months now, and his physician says his end is near. Rumour has it that one of your siblings is slowly poisoning him."
* * *
"What do you mean?" asked Geoffrey coldly, as Caerdig made his claim. Behind him, Helbye put a warning hand on his shoulder. Geoffrey shrugged it off, his eyes never leaving Caerdig's face. "What are you saying?"
"Easy now," said Caerdig, looking nervously to where Geoffrey's hand rested on the hilt of his dagger. "I am only repeating to you what is being said in the villages hereabouts. And any of my men here will tell you the same."
A man who wore a strange black cap stepped forward earnestly. "It is true. Everyone knows that Godric Mappestone is being poisoned — including him, although none of his attempts to discover the culprit have come to anything. However, even Godric himself knows that the most likely suspects are his own children."
"I see," said Geoffrey, deciding to dismiss the villagers" claims as spiteful gossip.
Excerpted from A Head for Poisoning by Simon Beaufort. Copyright © 2015 Simon Beaufort. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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