All Saint’s Eve, 1211. An overweight but wealthy nobleman, desperate for an heir, dies at the celebration feast he’s thrown in his own hall. A natural death . . . or at the hands of his reluctant new wife?
Sabin de Gifford, an apothecary and healer of note, is called to examine the body, and concludes that he died of a spasm to the heart. But she is troubled, all the same, and beset by suspicions. Did the man really die of a heart attack? Or was something more sinister to blame?
There is only one person Sabin can turn to for help: fellow healer Meggie, daughter of Sir Josse d’Acquin. But what she requires of her is dangerous indeed . . .
About the Author
Alys Clare lives in the English countryside, where her novels are set. She went to school in Tonbridge and later studied archaeology at the University of Kent.
Read an Excerpt
The Winter King
A Hawkenlye Mystery
By Alys Clare
Severn House Publishers Ltd.Copyright © 2013 Alys Clare
All rights reserved.
In King John's England, suffering the results of the monarch's petulant squabble with Pope Innocent and under an interdict these four years, several diverse elements were slowly moving together. When, inexorably, they would collide and combine, the outlook was stormy.
It was a time of frightening portents. In the royal hunting preserve of Cannock Forest, a herd of deer had been discovered with a terrible disorder of the bowels. The wildest of the rumours claimed the deer had fled halfway across the country and thrown themselves into the sea at the mouth of the River Severn. A two-headed, eight-legged animal had been born and, although nobody was entirely sure what sort of animal it was, or where this abomination had occurred, everyone accepted it as a sign of nature's – and, far more importantly, God's – extreme distress at the ways of the world. The moon had been observed coloured deep red, as if bathed in blood; a sure sign, if ever there was one, of strife. War, or at least some terrible disaster, it was generally agreed, must surely be coming ...
In a small Kentish village a dozen miles up from the coast, an elderly woman was basking in sudden notoriety. Some said she was a witch; others that she was just plain daft. She had an uncertain grip on reality, but this was possibly no more than a clever act. She appeared to be even more agitated than most by the alarming portents that were regularly occurring and, one mild autumn evening, according to witnesses, she emitted an ear-piercing scream and fell into a deep and very public trance in the middle of the village green. In her trance state – and opinion was equally divided between her being inspired by God or the Devil – she began to proclaim frightening and dangerous predictions.
'Darkness will prevail all the while this Winter King rules,' she began.
'Winter King? Who's that, then? What's she on about?' her audience muttered.
As if she had heard – possibly she had – the crone obligingly elucidated. 'The Oak King rules in the months of light,' she wailed, 'and the Holly King takes over at the autumn equinox, for he is made of darkness and belongs to the winter.' She paused, her wide, pale eyes ranging round her audience. 'He is the Winter King!' she cried. A few flecks of spittle dotted her lower lip.
'Does she mean King John?' a bold soul demanded.
'His peers will try to bring him down,' the old woman went on, her tone high and quivery, and not, according to witnesses, her normal speaking voice, 'demanding that he signs a great document that will call him to account, but it will be to no avail. He will suffer disaster on the water, losing all he holds most dear. He will die an untimely death, leaving his realm in grave jeopardy, beset by the enemy from across the seas.'
The crone's eyes were wide and staring. Once or twice she put a hand up to her brow, as if her head pained her. It seemed to some that she was listening to words that nobody else could hear.
A nervous frisson went through the villagers. Men and women turned to each other, searching for reassurance. On the outer edge of the now sizeable crowd, men looked anxiously over their shoulders. It did not do to be observed listening to such dangerous talk, and Heaven help the poor sap making the comments. One man, more sensible than most, hurried off to find the most respected of the village elders.
'His successor will be weak and untrustworthy,' continued the crone, either unaware of or ignoring her audience's unease, and well into her stride now. 'He will extract vast sums from his people to pay for ultimately fruitless wars—'
'Just like this one, then,' put in some humorist, raising a few half-hearted guffaws.
'—and he will reign for half a century, although it will seem longer,' went on the old woman. 'Only on his death will a great king emerge, one who will provide strong leadership against England's enemies and, at long last, permit his people a stake in their own lives.'
'What's she talking about? Stake in our own lives? When hell freezes over!' her fellow villagers protested, howling their derision.
A burly man – the village blacksmith – approached the old woman. His intention was unclear: perhaps he was going to demand an explanation, or perhaps, for her own good and theirs, he would attempt to stop her. Behind him, hurrying to catch up with his long strides, came the village elder, accompanied by the man who had run to fetch him. But they were too late to reason with or silence the old woman. With a dramatic cry, her eyes rolling back in her head, she fell into a swoon, and neither burnt feathers waved under her nose nor several quite hard slaps on the face could revive her.
That might have been the last anyone heard of Lilas of Hamhurst, for the village would probably have soon forgotten the event, or else saved it up as an amusing tale of the odd ways of folk, to relate on a dark evening. Unfortunately for old Lilas, however, one of those who heard her was no local man but a lord, and a member of the king's court circle to boot. As he silently slipped away from the crowd encircling the prostrate figure on the grass, he was committing to memory every last one of her pronouncements. He had an idea that certain men of his acquaintance would be very interested to hear them.
Nobody knew who he was. He had arrived by boat in Dover that afternoon, and was putting up overnight in the village inn, having made landfall too late in the day to complete his journey before dark. Even a wealthy, well-fed, strong lord carrying both a fine sword of Toledo steel, and a wickedly sharp dagger with which he was ruthlessly efficient, hesitated to travel by night nowadays. Especially when, for reasons best known to himself, he rode alone. Especially when, as now, he had gone to considerable effort to make himself look like any other impoverished traveller, the sword and the dagger carefully concealed from the eyes of the curious.
He saw no reason to reveal to the sots and the slatternly serving women in the Hamhurst tavern where he had come from and where he was bound, and when a drunk in the taproom ventured to ask him, he said, with a ferocious scowl, 'Mind your own business.'
Retiring early to the dirty cot assigned to him in the far corner of the sleeping quarters (he kept all his clothes on, including his boots, in the hope that he would thus deter the other living things that dwelt in the bedding) he wondered if he would have done better to go on his way after all. But it had been a long day, and he was exhausted.
His journey had begun before dawn, far away in northern France. He had been away for a long time – too long, he thought wearily – and the various tensions of the past few weeks had worn him out. He had travelled on the least-known lanes and tracks, sleeping under hedges or, at best, putting up at the sort of mean, rough, dirt-cheap tavern he was staying in that night. He had lost count of the number of days it was since he'd had access to hot water or changed his linen. He knew he stank, but comforted himself with the fact that to reek like a peasant was a good way of disguising his identity.
His mission to France had been both dangerous and delicate, and, for both those reasons, absolutely secret. Only a handful of men knew where he had gone, and why. Those men would even now be anxiously waiting for him, desperate to know what news he brought, whether or not his mission had been a success.
They will just have to wait another day, the man thought sourly. He turned over on the hard, mean cot, trying to get comfortable. His stomach ached, and the throbbing inside his head did not abate even when he closed his eyes and tried to relax. He had spent too long eating bad food and, to cap it all, the violent swell in the Narrow Seas had turned his guts inside out. He had vomited almost all the way from northern France to the south of England, leaning over the rail of the small boat bobbing her way through the heavy seas and wishing, at times, that he could just die and bring the misery to an end. The inn at Hamhurst was no haven of comfort and warmth, but even such a filthy hole was better than nothing. And, if he hadn't stopped when he did, he would not have been standing on the edge of that avid crowd of villagers when the old crone started her rant. He smiled grimly – a mere stretching of his thin lips. Perhaps some helpful deity was watching over him, keeping him from harm and ensuring that he'd been in exactly the right place at the right time ...
All things considered, he decided, yawning so hugely that he heard his jaw crack, it was far better to risk a few flea bites than sleep in some ditch. Who knew what starving wretch, driven to desperate measures by King John's rule, might have seen his chance to kill off one more poor traveller, grabbing what he could from the corpse to sell for whatever he could get?
And that, the man reflected as sleep finally took him, would actually have been quite ironic ...
Half a day's ride from Lilas's village, another voice was speaking out against King John's rule. The voice was that of a passionate, idealistic and naive young monk named Caleb, and he lived at Battle Abbey.
Bemused, innocent, and not a little deranged, Caleb believed fervently that King John's rule and its attendant hardships were a punishment from God. In private, Caleb had been taking secret measures – fasting, self-flagellation – to try to appease the terrifying version of God that he had been taught to believe in, hoping thus to move the Almighty to have pity on the people of England.
Although it was hard to say how it came to happen, Caleb had heard whispers concerning the happenings in Hamhurst. One whisper in particular – the strange new name that Lilas, in her trance, had bestowed upon the king. Now Caleb, too, deep within the confines of his monastery, began to refer to John as the Winter King.
Caleb's superiors, however, were not in the least happy at the young monk's growing notoriety. Battle Abbey had recently paid the vast sum of fifteen hundred marks to the king, in order that he should confirm the abbey's ancient privilege of being answerable directly and only to him, and not to the bishops who would otherwise have had control over the abbey and its life. It was not the moment for one of their congregation – even a young, innocent and slightly daft one – to upset the king by complaining that his rule was so terrible that it could only be a punishment from God.
The bishops were not at all pleased with the new arrangements at Battle. Not that it mattered very much; since the interdict had begun, English bishops had been steadily leaving the country, and their displeasure was thus largely irrelevant. The climate in England was not good for senior churchmen, for the uncompromising terms of the interdict were making people question if they really needed the church after all. Give or take the odd marriage service or funeral rites, they seemed to be managing quite nicely without it. The muttered grumbling was becoming gradually louder. Why do we have to pay tithes and taxes to the church when it doesn't lift a finger to help us in our time of need? People were, moreover, unconcerned at seeing the king continue to extract all that he could from the church and the religious houses. King John, the rumours said, needed chests full of money for some campaign he was mounting against the Welsh. Well, if he gets what he needs from the church, men muttered, he won't have to tax the people so heavily.
The insuppressible Caleb, who refused to be turned from his God-ordained path by threats or cajoling, was now saying that King John was not fit to rule. Perhaps this was another phrase that the young monk had overheard; it was, or so it was claimed, the view of the church's most senior figures. The Pope, should he finally lose patience with this king upon whom both excommunication and the imposition of the interdict had had so little effect, might well conclude the same, and then he would formally depose John of England, and release his subjects from the duty of allegiance to him.
By some strange mechanism of fate, Caleb appeared to be saying just what the people of England wanted to hear. His fame spread, and men and women flocked to Battle hoping to hear him speak. They were disappointed, for, having experienced just what happened when the young monk was allowed out, his superiors now kept him firmly within the abbey walls. But in every tavern in the town, there was only one topic of conversation; so loudly and frequently were Caleb's pronouncements repeated that few visitors came away unaware of exactly what the young monk had said.
These included the three nondescript merchants who, as the spell of fine weather finally ended and the cold November rains began, prepared to leave Battle and head back for where they had started from. They did not speak as they set off on the busy road from the coast to the capital. There was no need: they had what they'd come for. Now, urging on their mounts, their sole aim was to hurry back to the men who had sent them on their mission and give their report.
In the narrow, rectangular hall of a large and rambling old manor house, an elderly man sat by the huge fire that blazed in the hearth, stretching out his long legs to its warmth. The house had been well sited, sheltered as it was in a fold of the northern slopes of the High Weald. It was not affected by the insidious damp that crept up from the wide river valley to the north, and the higher land at its back kept off the worst of the prevailing south-westerly winds. But the old man had seen too many winters, and he hardly ever felt warm between October and April.
He sat in a costly oak chair, its arms, legs and back beautifully carved, a cushion stuffed with goose feathers on the seat to comfort his bony backside. Before him, on a large board balanced on two trestles, was a wide scatter of parchments, some still rolled and bound, some spread out and weighted at the four corners to hold them down.
So much information, the old man thought.
He sat back in his chair, slowly turning the huge rock of citrine set in heavy gold that graced the middle finger of his right hand.
Events were falling out just as he would have dictated, had it been possible to do so. At long last, not one but two people had found the courage to stand up and speak aloud what so many others murmured in secret. Yes, one was a wild-eyed crone and the other a naive young monk, but that did not matter. They had spoken out; they had done the unimaginable. Added to that, there were all the portents and omens; it was as if nature itself was eager to underline the message.
The old man's hard mouth twisted in a grimace of wry amusement. He did not believe there was any deep and worrying supernatural cause behind the two-headed, eight-legged deer, for he had long resided among living, breathing, breeding creatures, and had observed for himself what abominations sometimes slid from a dam's womb when something had gone awry with her offspring. But he was a keenly intelligent man, and fortunately for him and his companions, most of the population were wonderfully gullible and highly susceptible to fantastic rumour.
He leaned forward again and, picking up a quill, dipped it in ink and began to draw on a scrap of vellum. Under his slim, skilled fingers, a shape gradually emerged: a two-headed axe enclosed by a maze. It was the symbol they had adopted, he and his companions. Once again, the old man smiled. His companions, even those closest to him, believed the axe was simply a weapon, and that the surrounding maze represented the secret, concealing web which they were weaving around themselves and their activities.
The old man could have enlightened them, only he didn't choose to. It was not an axe but the labrys: butterfly symbol of transformation and rebirth. Inside his head, the old man regularly walked the twists and turns of the maze that enclosed it, for they would lead him to the ultimate insight.
Then, he had no doubt, he would know exactly how to complete the task that had now begun.
His drawing complete, he looked at it for a long time. Then he screwed up the piece of vellum and tossed it into the fire.
He sat back, relaxed, patient.
Soon, he knew, it would be time for action.
Excerpted from The Winter King by Alys Clare. Copyright © 2013 Alys Clare. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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