“Gripping and believable…you can almost smell the streets of 14th-century York as you delve deeper into an engrossing plot.” PRIMA
In the year of our Lord 1369 the much-loved Queen Philippa lies dying in Windsor Castle, the harvest has failed, and the pestilence has returned. In York, the atmosphere of fear and superstition is heightened by a series of thefts and violent deaths at St. Leonard’s Hospital, as well as rumors that these crimes are connected to the hospital’s dwindling funds. The Master of St. Leonard’s, Sir Richard Ravenser, hurries north from the queen’s deathbed to summon Owen Archer, soldier-spy, to investigate the scandal before it ruins him.
While his wife Lucie faces the plague-panicked townsfolk at the apothecary, Owen encounters a seemingly random series of clues: a riddle posed by one of the victims at the hospital, a lay sister with a scandalous past, the kidnapping of a child from the hospital orphanage, and a case of arson. The answer to the riddle of St. Leonard’s lies in the past, and as Owen’s family is caught up in the sweep of the pestilence, he must abandon them to race across the countryside to save the next victim.
About the Author
Candace M. Robb, author of The Apothecary Rose, The Lady Chapel, The Nun's Tale, The King's Bishop, The Riddle of St. Leonard's , and A Gift of Sanctuary, lives with her family in Seattle, Washington, and makes frequent trips to England to research her novels. She writes full-time.
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A Reputation at Stake
With pestilence in the south, most government officials had fled to the country a fortnight before. Nothing of substance would be accomplished in Westminster until the death count returned to a less terrifying level. The poor, the merchants who could not afford to close up shop for a season, and those who served them were left to live in sweltering fear behind shuttered doors or masked against the pestilential air.
There were also some whose duties delayed their flight. As Keeper of the Hanaper and the Queen's Receiver, Richard de Ravenser was one such, and even he hoped to depart for the north by the week's end in order to deal with disquieting matters concerning St Leonard's in York, which had been relayed to him in a letter from one of his canons. Ravenser was master of the great hospital.
Equally unnerving was the summons to London that he had just received from his uncle, John Thoresby, Archbishop of York. It seemed an odd time for his uncle to choose to journey to London when he might have remained secluded and relatively safe at Bishopthorpe. Ravenser did not mind the short ride from Westminster to London, but he wished he knew his uncle's purpose. Presumably he had arrived recently, for Ravenser had heard nothing of his uncle's presence in the city. Which meant Thoresby's business with Ravenser had some urgency. He was to attend Thoresby at his house at sext, which gave him little more time to prepare than it would take to arrange for a horse to be brought round.
Juniper wood burned in a brazier near John Thoresby's chair. In his hand he held a ball of ambergris. The window to his small garden was closed. And this morning he had forgone the bath for which he yearned. He was determined to survive the pestilence and fulfil his oath to complete the lady chapel at York Minster.
Thoresby was in London examining the deeds to his palace at Sherburne so that he could ascertain whether he had the right to tear it down for its stones, with which he might complete the chapel. But this morning a missive had arrived that he must discuss with his nephew, Richard de Ravenser.
It was well for Ravenser that he arrived at the prescribed time. Thoresby already felt impatient with his nephew. What was not so clever was Ravenser's choice of garb: a costly blue silk houppelande and bright green leggings. The silk would be ruined by the man's sweat, which Thoresby thought considerable. Remarkable that such a slender man could work up such a lather on the brief ride from Westminster.
'You would rival the peacocks in any garden,' Thoresby said. It was impossible to tell whether Ravenser blushed, he was already so red. Red, sweaty, dressed like a peacock — and looking with every season more like Thoresby himself, though more pinched in the mouth and desperate round the eyes.
'Your Grace.' Ravenser bowed. 'I came as quickly as I might.'
'No time to change into something more elegant?'
A surprised look. 'I confess I dressed whilst awaiting my steed and escort.' Ravenser frowned down at his clothes. 'A poor choice?'
'They tell me that you aspire to my position. Do they speak true, Richard?'
Ravenser glanced at a chair. 'May I?'
'You are weary from your ride. Of course.' Thoresby watched his nephew smooth the back of his garment, flutter the sleeves so they might drape over the arms of the chair. His taste for finery was more suited to court than to chancery or the Church. 'Wine?'
The Queen's Receiver glanced up with a guileless smile. 'That would be a great comfort.' Thoresby guessed it was the quality of Ravenser's smile, so unexpected in a man of his status, that pleased the Queen. It made him seem an innocent in a world of ministers cynical from experience.
'If it is true that your ambitions lie in the Church, I would recommend that you adopt a more clerical look,' Thoresby said.
Ravenser looked stricken. 'Your comment about peacocks was not in jest?'
A servant slipped from the corner of the room, poured watered wine into two Italian glass cups, offered one to Ravenser from the tray. He took it, drank thirstily. The servant stood by, ready to refill the cup. After the second, Ravenser sighed happily and drew out a linen cloth to dab at his lips.
Thoresby lifted the offending missive with the tip of his finger, nodded for the servant to hand it to Ravenser. 'I received this today. I thought you might wish to discuss it.' Ravenser's eyes fell to the bottom of the missive, and he frowned. 'Roger Selby, the mayor? But what of William Savage?'
'He died in late May. You had not heard? Selby was sworn in on the feast of St Barnabas.'
'God be thanked,' Ravenser muttered.
'Oh? I always found Savage a reasonable man.'
'The office had gone to his head.'
'No, it was his heart gave out.' Thoresby allowed a brief smile.
Thoresby wondered what had transpired between the dead man and his nephew. But he must see to the matter for which he had summoned Ravenser. 'Read the letter, Richard. We must discuss it.'
As Ravenser read Selby's letter, he coloured. Thoresby saw it quite clearly now that his nephew had caught his second wind. At last Ravenser dropped the letter on the small table beside him, leaned on one elbow, chin in hand. Not so elegant now.
'The reputation of York's religious houses is precious to me, Richard. What do you know of this Honoria de Staines?'
'Sweet Jesu, uncle, she is a lay sister, no more than a servant to the sisters who tend the sick.'
'And she has been allowed to carry on her earlier profession in her hours away from the hospital?'
'No! Savage slandered the hospital without cause. The lay sisters live together under one roof in a house belonging to the hospital. A sinner amongst them would be reported, I am certain.'
'Tell me about this woman.'
'Fair and fond of men, they say. Her husband went to fight for the King and has not returned.'
'How did she come to the hospital?'
Ravenser rose, moved behind his chair, leaned his elbows on its back, shook his head. 'This is all unnecessary. But if anyone is to blame it is my cellarer, Don Cuthbert, he who is in charge when I am away. He believes it his mission to give sinners a second chance. When Mistress Staines came to him and expressed her vocation, he thought it his Christian duty to accept her. I commended him for it.'
Was Ravenser so naïve? 'I suppose she made a small donation to convince him?'
'To Cuthbert that would not matter.'
'I do not recall this saintly man.'
'You would have no reason. He is rarely away from St Leonard's.'
'And there is nothing in this accusation that she still invites men to her bed?'
'Not unless she shares them with the other lay sisters at their house, no, Your Grace.' Ravenser's voice rose slightly.
'You feel bullied. But you did not consider the potential gossip, did you? Have you encouraged Cuthbert to be so bold with other choices?'
'No others have come to my attention.'
Someone else's duty to notice. An ill-advised attitude. 'What of the comment about the hospital's financial straits?'
Ravenser wiped his brow. 'You know of that problem, Your Grace. But how it has become common knowledge ... ' he shook his head.
Thoresby considered his nephew. Should he give him advice or let him swim upriver on his own?
Ravenser cleared his throat. 'I have sent a request to the Queen for an audience. I will ask her permission to ride north to see what I might do to quiet this talk.' Excellent. There might yet be a higher post for the man.
Ravenser drew out a letter. 'There is more. My almoner, a man I trust, has told me of another rumour.' He handed the item to Thoresby.
The archbishop read Don Erkenwald's missive, in which he warned Ravenser of talk of deaths that conveniently eased the hospital's expenses. Thoresby gave his nephew his sternest look. 'You swear this is merely a rumour?'
Ravenser put his head in his hands. 'Christ's rood, if even you can believe it, I am without hope.'
'Enough. I go to Windsor myself on the morrow. If you receive an invitation, you are welcome to share my barge.' Ravenser peered up through his fingers.
Thoresby nodded to him.
Ravenser lifted his head and smiled. 'You are kind to extend such an offer. How can I thank you?'
'You will thank me by resolving this business before other reputations are jeopardised, nephew.'
Ravenser bowed, still with a polite smile, but Thoresby had seen discomfort in the man's eyes. Good. He understood that Thoresby looked after his own interests in this. He would not want his nephew to think him an unconditional ally.
Don Erkenwald, almoner of St Leonard's, heard the whispers about Walter de Hotter's death. He did not like them. The rumour of the hospital's financial troubles had been circulating through the city for several months, and now someone had attached a juicier titbit to it. No one had thought twice about John Rudby's death, but the death of Walter de Hotter was clearly murder. And though Walter had lived out in the city, he had just returned from the hospital when attacked. His death further risked the hospital's already tarnished reputation.
The situation deserved more attention than his brother in charge of the hospital gave it. How had his fellows elected Don Cuthbert to the position of cellarer over him? The puny canon had been content with the bailiff's suggestion that Walter had surprised a burglar, and he refused to speak of it further. He had been particularly deaf to Erkenwald's suggestion that Richard de Ravenser, Master of St Leonard's, be informed of the rumours.
As to informing him, Don Erkenwald had already seen to that, writing to Sir Richard about the hospital's financial troubles being made public. Ravenser might be busy in Westminster as Keeper of the Hanaper and Queen's Receiver, but surely not too busy to care about the reputation of his hospital. Erkenwald hoped that the master might even now be planning a journey north to mingle with the important families of the city and convince them that all was well. It was not the time to allow such lies to poison the people's opinion of the good works St Leonard's accomplished, not now, when the merchant guilds were building elegant halls and housing their own sick and elderly in the undercrofts. These were the very merchants on whom they depended for generous gifts to support St Leonard's.
On his almoner's rounds among the poor, Erkenwald now made it his business to ask whether anyone had seen aught, or heard aught about Walter de Hotter's death that seemed more than rumour. On one of the afternoons when he stole some time to practise at the butts on St George's Field — his vows had not obliterated his training as a soldier — Erkenwald asked the advice of one said to be the best spy in the north.
While he unstrung his bow, Owen Archer listened with interest — until Erkenwald came to the motivation.
'Murdering a respected merchant to ruin a rival hospital's reputation?' The tall, one-eyed man grinned. 'You should go back to soldiering. All that prayer has softened your wits.'
Erkenwald laughed at that. 'Prayer. There are those in my house who would say I pray too little. 'Tis why they chose Cuthbert over me. Prayer is ever his response. Every time another treasure disappears he hies to church and prays. I suppose he believes the good Lord has decided to redistribute the wealth of St Leonard's.'
'I had not heard of any thefts.'
'Well, and that is as it should be. In that I agree with Cuthbert. I suppose a thief in our midst is not a story merchants would care to use, being thieves themselves, eh?'
'What is missing?'
Erkenwald needed no coaxing. He knew the story would go no further, and perhaps Archer would see a pattern in it. 'Riches, to be sure. A gold chalice finely wrought, a delicate silver missal cover, goblets of Italian glass. Such things.'
'And Don Cuthbert's response to such a loss is to pray?' 'He does little else.' But Erkenwald saw that Owen's attention wandered: he fidgeted with his quiver of arrows. No matter. The information was his to use. 'I thank you for listening, Captain.'
'Forgive my haste. My children leave for the country on the morrow. I have much to do.'
'You send them to Mistress Wilton's father?'
'To keep them from the pestilence?'
Owen pressed the scar below his eyepatch. 'Foolish, eh? As if Death did not walk all the countryside.'
'Still, a wise precaution.'
'God go with you, Don Erkenwald.'
As Owen walked away, the canon noticed a slump in the archer's shoulders, which was not in character. To send his children away must have been a difficult decision.
John Thoresby and Richard de Ravenser sat quietly on the barge travelling up the Thames. The afternoon sun had warmed the river water to an unpleasantly pungent degree, but at least a breeze stirred their rich garments where they sat beneath the awning. Their men-at-arms were not so fortunate; they stood in their own sweat in the sunlight. Thoresby watched the swans on the river, ghostly shadows amidst the reeds and grass along the bank. He felt his nephew studying him. Did he think to find his future in his uncle's face? Folk often commented on the two men's appearance: outwardly so similar, they seemed the same man at two stages in life, prime and, well, it must be said, old age. But it was an illusion. In soul they were nothing alike. Ravenser was enjoying the journey; he smiled now and waved at a lady on a passing barge who was being serenaded by a lute-plucking lover. Thoresby could not so enjoy himself this day, on his way to what might be his last audience with Queen Phillippa.
Windsor Castle shimmered in the summer heat but, within, the thick stone sweated and gave off a damp chill. Aromatic fires burned everywhere to ward off the pestilence, creating a fog in some of the passageways. Continuous Masses were said for the people, and once a day a procession wound from St George's Chapel around the lower ward, through the Norman Gate, and around the upper ward, with a benediction said at the royal apartments before the procession returned to the chapel. Servants with any signs of fever were sent to wait out their illness outside the castle. Only those necessary to or summoned by the King or Queen and who appeared in good health were allowed into the royal apartments.
Ravenser entered the Queen's chamber with trepidation. He had always come here on the Queen's business, at her bidding. This was different. This was his business, instigated by his missive to the Queen explaining his situation. The worst of it was that now it seemed a trivial matter to put to a dying Queen.
But she had graciously invited him. And now she waved him to her side with a red, swollen hand.
'Your Grace,' Ravenser knelt at her side.
'Come. I have little time for ceremony at present, my good Receiver.'
'Forgive me for intruding ...'
She grunted to silence him. 'I have little head for state affairs at present. I have prayed over this and believe it is God's will that you go north and put your house in order. You are best away from the city and court at such a time.'
'Your Grace, you are most kind. I shall entrust the purse to my best clerk in my absence.'
The Queen lay her head back on the silky mound of pillows. A lady-in-waiting made herself known and showed Ravenser out.
Tears shimmered in the Queen's eyes. 'My dear John, old friend.' She pressed Thoresby's hand, released it. 'Pray for me.'
'I beg the same of you.'
'Help Edward when I am gone. He will need you.'
Thoresby did not say that the King had not called upon him for anything outside his duties as archbishop in a long while. This was neither the time nor the place. But he did have a request. 'I would be your confessor. Stay beside you until ...' He could not say it.
Phillippa's rheumy eyes glistened with tears. 'No. I could not bear it. With Wykeham I do not feel this pain.'
So it was true. William of Wykeham, Lord Chancellor and Bishop of Winchester, was the Queen's confessor in her last days. Thoresby had not believed it. To hide his dismay, he told Queen Phillippa of his plan to complete the lady chapel.
'Alas, Sherburne. Is it not a lovely house?'
'I have many such houses. But the minster does not have a complete lady chapel. The quarries near York are depleted of the stone I need. And I wish to complete it now. So that you may come north to see it.'
Phillippa patted his hand. 'That will not be, my friend. Too many who were too young to die have gone. It is my turn. God may let Richard recover if I go quietly.' Her eldest son, the Black Prince, had suffered a wasting sickness for two years. Her second son Lionel, Duke of Clarence, had died the previous year, and her third son's wife, the lovely Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, had died in the autumn. Many said it was the weight of sorrow that had finally broken the Queen's spirit.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Riddle of St. Leonard's"
Copyright © 1997 Candace Robb.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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