In the bitter winter of 1478, Roger the Chapman takes to the roads once again to sell his wares. His long-suffering wife Adela is happy to let him go, on condition that he promises to return by the feast of St Patrick in March. Having sold most of his goods, Roger starts on the long road home, keen to surprise Adela by arriving home early for once. However, on the way, he stumbles upon the tiny village of Lower Brockhurst where he is immediately made welcome at the village alehouse. Overhearing conversations regarding the recent disappearance of a local girl, Roger's investigative instincts are instantly aroused, and he determines to stay awhile in order to try and solve the mystery. Had she really just vanished? Or had something much more sinister taken place? But Roger soon realises that there is more to the girl's story than meets the eye, and that the village harbours dark secrets that some people would do anything to prevent being discovered.
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Nine Men Dancing
By Kate Sedley
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2003 Kate Sedley
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I suppose it's an integral part of the human condition that everyone, on some occasion or another, should experience feelings of guilt; and this applies particularly to men with wives and children who, like me, value their independence and need, from time to time, to escape from the ties of family life. (At least, I used to when I was younger. Now that I'm an old man, I have to submit, however unwillingly and ungraciously, to the petty tyrannies of my sons and daughter; especially the latter, who persists in regarding me, now that I'm in my seventies, as just another of her offspring. The idiot one!)
Certainly, after an autumn and early winter of intense domestic activity, I was more than ready, following the Christmas festivities of that year of 1478, to take my chapman's pack and be out on the open road again, with the solitude and silence that only a winter landscape can offer. Even before the church services had run their course, before the waits had finished singing carols from door to door, before the Boy Bishop had preached his sermon and doffed his mitre for another year, I was dreaming of sodden bracken squelching underfoot, of the naked trunks of birch trees seen tall and straight through a mesh of purple twigs, of frostbitten grass and early morning, knee-high mists ...
Fortunately for me, my wife, Adela, was the most understanding of women and rarely made over-exacting claims on my time and patience. By the middle of January, she knew that I was near the end of my tether. Of course, she could easily have pointed out that with three small children, one of them a baby of six months, to look after – not to mention the flea-bitten mongrel who had attached himself to us and become the household pet – she, too, was at the limit of her endurance. But she didn't. The Virgin only knows why not! Adela wasn't a saint by any stretch of the imagination, but her love for me gave her a tolerance for my loutish, unutterably selfish behaviour that I didn't deserve and of which I took endless advantage.
Our two elder children, Nicolas and Elizabeth, were now four years old, with only a fortnight's difference in their ages. This apparent phenomenon is easily explained. Nick is Adela's son by her first husband, Owen Juett, while Bess is my daughter by my first wife, Lillis Walker. The baby, Adam, was born on the last day of June, a year after Adela and I were married. His half-brother and -sister, who were (and still are) devoted to one another, had not taken kindly to his appearance in their midst and had, for a time, deeply resented him. But they were by now more reconciled to his arrival, even condescending, on occasions, to entertain him. Nevertheless, it had not been an easy six months.
To make matters even more difficult, I had inherited a house; a gentleman's town house in Small Street, Bristol, where we lived. Prior to this, our accommodation had been a one-roomed cottage, rented from Saint James's Priory in Lewin's Mead, outside the city walls. How I came into possession of this house belongs to an earlier story, and I refuse to go into details again here. But what, at first, had seemed like the answer to prayer, turned out to be a double-edged sword. The resentment of many of our erstwhile friends to this outstanding piece of good fortune was palpable. That a mere, common, low-born chapman from the small Somerset town of Wells – who didn't even have the courtesy or common sense to be born a native Bristolian – should become the owner of a two-storey dwelling with a yard and a privy at the back, was more than most of them could stomach, and they choked on their own bile. They had long envied the fact that, trained for a life in Holy Orders, which I had rejected, I could read and write. Now, here I was, set up for a life of ease.
Well, that was their version of my future!
Like our former friends, our new neighbours in Small Street were equally resentful and waited eagerly to see what a pigsty we would make of the place. After all, our home now consisted of a hall, a parlour, a buttery, a kitchen and three bedrooms. It was impossible that we should have enough sticks of furniture to equip the house in any sort of comfort. What no one knew but ourselves was that after the last favour I had done for the Duke of Gloucester – or the last commission I had carried out for His Grace, as Timothy Plummer would have preferred to phrase it – Prince Richard had given me two gold pieces for my pains. This had been more than enough to furnish the house, if not luxuriously, at least adequately, and yet again, my detractors were frustrated in their desire to see me fall flat on my face. What they failed to realize was that, in the future, I should have to work twice as hard at my peddling in order to keep us in the style to which we had all too easily, and in very short order, grown accustomed.
This was the situation, then, after the twelve days of Christmas, 1478, when I began, once again, to feel the well-remembered itch to be free of domestic ties and encumbrances and to take to the road with my pack and cudgel.
'Go!' said Adela. 'Get out from under my feet before you drive me mad with your grumblings and your bouts of ill-temper.'
'I don't like leaving you. Not in the present circumstances,' I cavilled, while not admitting to her accusation of bad behaviour.
She laughed, as well she might, knowing me quite as well as, if not better than, I knew myself.
'I'm perfectly capable of dealing with any unpleasantness that might arise,' she argued.
This was true. Adela treated everyone, however awkward, with an unfailing courtesy that disarmed them and made them ashamed of their boorishness. It was also true that as far as the children were concerned, she was better at controlling them than I was. Whereas I shouted and bribed, veering between heavy-handed tyranny and abject sycophancy, she spoke quietly, but firmly, and if she uttered a threat, it was not an idle one.
'Besides,' she added, 'Margaret' – Margaret Walker, my quondam mother-in-law and Adela's cousin – 'has promised to shut up her cottage in Redcliffe and stay with us while you're away.'
No doubt, I thought sulkily, the whole thing had been arranged between them, behind my back and before I was even aware of what I wanted myself. My wife saw the look on my face and laughed again. She put her arms around my neck, pressing close to me with an affection that I couldn't, and wasn't meant, to mistake.
'You can have until the beginning of March,' she told me. 'I shall expect you home well before Saint Patrick's Day. And I mean that, Roger. I don't want you turning up three weeks later, hoping that I'll accept some lame excuse for your tardiness, because I shan't.'
'What would you do?' I grinned, returning her embrace with lascivious interest.
But just at that moment, our two elder children burst in and, in spite of having the hall, the kitchen and their two bed-chambers as alternative playgrounds, announced that the parlour was the one place in the house where they intended to be for the rest of the morning.
Nothing had changed.
Three days later, I was on the road, heading north towards Gloucester, a full pack strapped to my back, a good thick cudgel (my 'Plymouth Cloak') grasped in my right hand and a small, nondescript dog trundling happily at my heels. (I had been forced to take Hercules with me because Margaret Walker had recently acquired an equally small, equally aggressive, black and white dog who had been abandoned by his owner, and whose presence in his new house deeply offended Hercules.) And now, in this last week of February, the pair of us were on the road home, in excellent time to reach Bristol well before the Feast of Saint Patrick on the 17th of March.
On my northward journey, I had taken my time getting to Gloucester by visiting even the smallest, out-of-the-way hamlets, tucked snug as mice in their nests beneath the rising folds of the Cotswold hills. From Gloucester, where I did good business and made a pilgrimage to the tomb of the murdered Edward II, I struck south-east, through the little slate-roofed villages and prosperous sheep farms, to the market town of Cirencester, the ancient Corinium Dobunnorum of the Romans, where, yet again, I had no difficulty in selling my wares. By now, February was well advanced and it was time to turn my footsteps south-westward if I was to be home by the middle of March.
I had chosen, conveniently, to forget Adela's instruction of 'well before Saint Patrick's Day', but an unexpected twinge of conscience led me to attempt a short cut, leaving the well-worn track between Cirencester and Tetbury and taking to a path recommended by a local forester. As this led through a densely wooded area, I should have known better, but the man's eager assurances that, this way, I should reach Tetbury before I knew where I was proved irresistible. Unfortunately, it also proved prophetic in the sense that, before very long, I didn't know where I was, and was totally lost. To make matters worse, it had begun to rain, cold, slanting spears that stung my face and made Hercules whimper with indignation and stare up at me accusingly as he trotted by my side.
'All right,' I muttered as he yelped pathetically, 'I know I'm a fool. You're hungry, I'm hungry. We're both wet, chilled to the marrow and dog-tired – if you'll pardon the expression – but there's nothing I can do about it. We can only keep on along this path and hope that it leads us somewhere ... Christ Jesus! What was that?'
Something hanging from the branch of an oak had brushed my face. I swung round, cudgel at the ready, while Hercules growled and bared his teeth. Happily, there was still sufficient daylight filtering between the overhanging canopy of trees for me to see what it was that had struck my cheek. A corn dolly, with a nail driven through its heart swung from a twig, while a bunch of mistletoe had been placed at the foot of the oak. I shivered, but made no attempt to touch either. Hercules shrank against my legs. I could feel him trembling.
I looked higher up the tree. Long strips of cloth, sodden and darkened by the rain, were tied to some of the other branches. This was an old Celtic custom and indicated the presence, somewhere in the vicinity, of a well or spring, once sacred to the local god of the place (something I had learned from my first wife, Lillis, who was of both Cornish and Welsh descent). And yet I had neither heard nor seen any sign of water for quite some while.
'Let's get out of here,' I muttered to Hercules, picking him up and tucking him under my left arm. He was still shaking and I soothed him as best I could, glad of the warmth of his little body close to mine.
Suddenly, the crowding trees seemed to draw back and we were in a clearing. In spite of the fact that the light was bad, I could see that there were strangely shaped humps and bumps amongst the general scrub and undergrowth. A closer look at one of them convinced me that there was stonework beneath the encroaching ivy and layers of moss. Young saplings, thrusting heavenwards, had dislodged one or two of the stones, which lay scattered around on the grass. Further investigation suggested that a house of some size had once stood on the site, and its broken stumps of walls accounted for the hummocky landscape.
I put Hercules down and he at once began his own inspection, eagerly sniffing everything in sight and leading me on until the path we had been following suddenly reappeared, snaking ahead of us to vanish into another belt of trees. And it was at this point that I stubbed the toe of my right boot against something lying hidden in the undergrowth and measured my length on the ground. For a moment, I was winded and half stunned; then, cursing roundly and fending off the dog's well-meant attentions, I picked myself up and turned to find out what had felled me.
I knew from my aching ribs that I had fallen across something hard. Tearing aside the long stems of winter-bleached grasses, I soon revealed a large, round wooden cover with a handle. This, when raised – not without a good deal of swearing and exertion on my part, and excited barking on that of Hercules – revealed the dark, rank-smelling depths of an old well, which had once, presumably, provided water for the ruined house. The canopy of the well, the winch and bucket had long since disappeared, but the shaft remained; although, as far as I could make out in the poor remnants of daylight, there was no water in it (I threw a stone down, but heard no splash). A narrow iron ladder, about a foot in width, was attached to the wall of the shaft, disappearing into the murky gloom like the descent into Hades.
I stood up, rubbing ineffectually at the damp and muddy knees of my second-best pair of hose, thankful that at least I hadn't ripped them. Then I dragged the lid of the well back into place, making sure that it fitted snugly around the ring of stones bordering, and standing slightly proud of, the shaft's rim, just as I had found it.
I shifted my almost empty pack, which had slipped sideways, to a more comfortable position on my back, and looked down thoughtfully at my discovery. I wondered who had made the lid and fitted it. Such care for the well-being of human and animal life (perhaps not necessarily in that order) argued a settlement, a village or a hamlet, somewhere not too far distant. If that were so, then Hercules and I might hope for food and a place to sleep for the night. Greatly cheered by this reflection, and praying that I was right, I urged a willing Hercules onward.
We followed the path into the trees and, almost at once, found ourselves on a gentle slope, descending almost imperceptibly into an as yet invisible hollow. The rain had ceased and a thin, watery ray of light slanted through the leafless branches overhead. There was the sudden glint of sun on water – and so it was that I saw, even before I heard, the little rill, purling over its stony bed, that had suddenly appeared and was accompanying us downhill. Where its source lay, I had no idea, but it encouraged me to believe that my reasoning was correct, and that we were within reach of warmth and shelter.
The trees ended abruptly and Hercules and I were once again in open country, on an incline whose lush grassland, in spring and summer, would be white with sheep – those four-legged moneybags that made Gloucestershire farmers the envy of all Europe. But for the present, after the lambing season, most of the ewes were still indoors, in barns and folds and hovels, and only a few dotted the horizon. And even as I watched, a man came out of the farmhouse, just visible away to my right, striding purposefully towards them, crook in hand, ready to pen them up for the night. He waved to someone further down the slope; someone beyond my range of vision in the rapidly advancing dusk.
It was indeed growing dark, and my obvious course of action would have been to make for the farmhouse, had I not at that very instant noticed the fugitive twinkle of lights in the hollow below me. I strode out with renewed vigour, whistling tunelessly and encouraging Hercules to hurry along with promises of a bowl of scraps eaten by a warm fireside.
The distance between us and a night's shelter was, however, greater than I had estimated. We passed the farmhouse and its attendant barns and outhouses, now nothing but black, papery shadows set against a stormy evening sky, and, some little way further on, a much smaller homestead, again only a dark shape on the horizon. It was perhaps another quarter of a mile before Hercules and I found ourselves crossing the wooden footbridge over a broader stream, fed by the rill that had been our companion for the past half-hour.
Beyond the bridge, lay one of those little Cotswold hamlets of slate and stone, lying like a wisp of grey smoke between the surrounding hills. As far as I could see at first glance through the increasing gloom, this one consisted of half a dozen cottages, a tiny church thatched with rough grass and bracken, a mill and – a sight to gladden my heart – an alehouse.
This last was unmistakable. The door stood open, showing an oblong of smoky red light across which flitted a procession of figures. Raised voices could be heard inside, laughing, complaining, shouting, arguing or drunkenly singing snatches of a bawdy song to the accompaniment of a reedy pipe and the scrape of a badly tuned fiddle. A pole with a bunch of leaves tied to its top – its 'bush' – indicated that food was available. My empty stomach was already rumbling.
Excerpted from Nine Men Dancing by Kate Sedley. Copyright © 2003 Kate Sedley. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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