A ticking clock
A heroine under pressure who responds
A protective hero
A setting that has an impact on the characters.
With my most recent novel, I have returned to the Middle Ages and to Historical Mystery. An Older Evil is the first of a series of stories featuring the heroine Alyson Weaver. Alyson is older than my romance heroines and experienced in life and love, a widow of Bath who loves life and who hates injustice. In the times when she lived there was no formal police force, so when a stranger is murdered close to her home, Alyson feels compelled to investigate, especially when her family and household come under threat.
Alyson is also happy to play Cupid whenever she can and there is a romantic subplot in this novel... an unusual romantic subplot.
Here is an excerpt:
Sweeping into her airy workshop, Alyson had no inkling of the murder she would witness outside Bath that morning. Head busy with accounts, forearms aching from her weaving, she ducked from her sunny, tidy buttery into the whitewashed old hall, bearing a huge red-glazed pitcher and cups. Slipping past her weaving frame under the big square window and the trestle loaded with carding boards and piles of freshly washed wool, she handed each of the maids who spun for her today a foaming beaker of ale.
Dropping their spindles onto the rush matting, all three set off for the open door. Clustered in the threshold, giggling and pointing with their tankards, Emily, Kate and Bela had time for nothing but the man working in the nearby meadow. “He’s an angel!” cried Bela, smacking her lips.
Laughing, Alyson filled two more cups and joined them at the back door. “That’ll be the new woodman Felise mentioned. Let’s welcome him, shall we? No, Bela.” She caught the youngest girl back. “I’d best go first. I need to warn your angel to keep to the path whilst he tends the abbey’s trees.” Threading between Kate and Emily, Alyson stepped down into the yard. “I’ll find out his name for you. You can take him bread and ale at noon. Just be sensible.”
Impossible advice. Aware of the excited whispering behind her, she struck out across the beaten earth yard, past the shadow of her new timbered hall, to where her plump laundress was doubled over a cauldron of hot water, scouring linen with a scrubbing board. After leaving the sweating Willelma her ale, Alyson dipped through the yard gate and trod amongst the damp meadow primroses, daisies, and fresh grass. Clambering the steep chalk track toward Beacon Hill, the spring sun warm on her strong, high-coloured face, she had a splendid view of the young man working in the ash copse at the far side of her small hillside meadow, his back to her as he sawed fallen branches.
Alyson stopped dead, her free hand making the sign of the cross. By the rood, he was like Jankin! Those crisp blond curls and long shapely legs made the woodman a mirror of her fifth and youngest husband. Jankin’s luminous eyes and teasing mouth had charmed her more than spiced wine, music, or dance. But Jankin was two years dead, murdered in a tavern brawl.
Suddenly, Alyson felt the weight of her forty-five years. She trembled, her breathing quickening, though not from the climb. Ahead, the woodman sawed on, the bite of metal on wood louder than the raucous twitter of nesting birds and the bawling of street vendors down below in nearby Bath. Waiting for her grief to subside, Alyson looked back, thinking of her home, lonely at the edge of meadows. She had fragile memories of running as a tiny child through that rectangular block of cramped kitchen, old hall, and little buttery, then up an outside stair to a small private chamber—Mother’s sun-room, called a solar.
Alyson sighed, conscious of a dropping chill in her belly although the day was bright. The old house fronted the road, its main windows and doors facing down into Bath. Her fourth husband, Peter, had demanded more privacy, and a second crook-gabled dwelling had been built on at right angles to the first, so now the house was an L-shaped block. Peter had approved the handsome brown and white cross-beamed timbered long hall. He had chosen the three lancet windows in the new hall with their top quatrefoils done in expensive glass—showy but cold. It had been Peter, too, who had determined where the hall dais should go and the hearth. Inside the house, there were many pieces of furniture and plate to be polished, for Peter had aspired to be a country worthy as well as a wool merchant.
Alyson was a city child. After the great pestilence of 1349 had carried off her parents from this country suburb, Alyson had been brought up inside Bath at her brother Adam’s house. Her daughter, Margery, and grandchild, Benedict, still lived within its lively streets. Her keen sight took in the small city, snug in its setting of limestone cliffs and wooded hills, the pale bulk of the abbey church and its grounds filling most of the city walls and dominating the narrow streets with their thatched houses and thermal baths, famous for cures throughout Christendom. Lucky Mag and Ben, to dwell so close to so much company and gossip! Yet Bath was where Peter’s long-term mistress lived, and Alyson would have walked farther than Jerusalem to avoid Isabel.
Catching a scent of cowslips on the breeze stirring the tips of her veil, she shaded her eyes. Beyond her field ran the London road, threading to the left past her church of St. Michael and into the north gate of the city. Where that road narrowed and became lined with tall, timber-framed houses, Felise Brewster lived, baker of the best date slices in Bath. She called in most days. Felise was sickly now and could no longer gad about. Recalling her friend’s listless limbs and stricken face, Alyson turned again, eager to be on her way.
The stranger must have heard the rustle of her skirts. Fast as a cleric’s angel dancing on a pinhead, he spun about, the saw raised like a club. Or a sword, ready to slash at an enemy, thought Alyson, hoisting her flagon. “Forgive me if I startled you. I’m your neighbour, Mistress Weaver. You’re working in my field.” Alyson blazed her engaging gap-toothed smile and held out the ale. “For you.”
The saw lowered, and a white hand removed the wooden beaker from her fingers. Crisp gold curls rolled forward as the young man nodded thanks, his dark eyes swarming over her shapely figure. He grinned, but Alyson was uneasy. Something was wrong here. “You’re here from the north?” she asked in Midlands speech.
No recognition. Alyson tried Cornish, Yorkshire, and Canterbury dialects, but the young man drank on with no more understanding than an ape. Pretty manners, though: when he’d finished he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, not his sleeve. Such a patched, honest sleeve, thought Alyson. Tight round his arm, but with clothes being so often passed on in families, that wasn’t to be wondered at. His smooth new hose were a different matter.
“Your stockings are very fine,” she murmured in Latin.
The woodman glanced down the front of his short homespun tunic, and she seized the chance to walk on, leaving the flagon behind. Whatever was going on here, Felise was more important than this mystery.
* * * *
Trapped in her friend’s stifling back parlour before a spitting birch wood fire and nursing a goblet of mead, Alyson squirmed on the high-backed bench. Excessive heat always made her queasy, but Felise needed the warmth. “You are well today?” she asked, concerned.
“Not bad.” Felise stirred into her posset a spoonful of the herbs Alyson had brought. She tapped her goblet. “Thanks for these.”
Alyson dragged the vermilion veil off her head and raked hot fingers along one of her darkening blonde plaits. “It’s nothing.”
“You know that’s not true. Your mixtures always help, especially after the apothecary.”
Alyson scowled. “I trust you didn’t let him bleed you.” Felise, who was around the same age as her, was not strong and lost too much blood already through abnormal monthly courses.
“I told him no this time.”
Alyson looked up and saw the blush on her friend’s delicate oval face, the glint of fire in the wide black eyes. Delighted, she whistled at a pet finch chirruping in its wicker cage in one corner of the cosy room and squeezed the small hand lying on the bench next to hers. “Good!”
Starting to her feet, Alyson leaned round the yellow and blue striped wall hanging to peer through the half-opened shutters of the lancet window. “Your Gilbert must be pleased. Where is he this morning?”
Felise shrugged narrow shoulders. “Off somewhere as usual. Alyson, this strange young man you mentioned earlier—how did you guess it wasn’t the new woodman?”
“Because his clothes were wrong. The tunic he was wearing had been made for a shorter, leaner man, and it wasn’t a hand-me-down. Not with those fancy hose. And the abbey wouldn’t hire a forester round Bath who understood Latin but not a word of our dialect.” Alyson tutted. “This was a quick deception, for what reason I’ve no notion. The man’s a squire, still training in arms, or a clerk.” She nodded, long blonde and hazel plaits bobbing against her hips. “He didn’t come at me with that saw. Probably a clerk.”
“Like Jankin. Or your son, William, as he might have been,” Felise added.
“As you say.” Alyson slowly resumed her place on the wooden bench. Her eyes had begun to smart, maybe from the curling wisps of wood smoke.
The pet finch fell silent. In the small pause that followed, Alyson heard someone scream in the kitchen. A shower of crockery hit stone flags on the floor below theirs, and a pair of heels pounded off in the direction of the scullery. She started to her feet again, her tall figure protectively in front of Felise. “What’s happening?”
There were sounds of a scuffle, then a yell and a rush of savoury smells as the kitchen door slammed open and shut. A tumult of kitchen steam and bickering drifted up the steep staircase outside the parlour.
“What is it?” Alison asked.
“Oliver, raiding off the spits again.” Tiny Felise slumped on the bench, clutching a cushion. “Alyson, he’s dreadful! He was sent back to us last night. Gilbert had to pay the potter a fortune for his wicked damage.”
Alyson said nothing. Oliver would never have lasted as an apprentice potter. The boy was too full of energy to be penned indoors.
“What am I going to do with him?” Felise weakly pummelled her cushion. “He wrecks everything he touches! Gilbert complains he does nothing but stuff himself with food.”
“Ten-years-old is a starving time. I remember eating a whole loaf at the same age and being beaten for it.” Alyson set her empty goblet down into the hearth. “He’ll grow out of it.”
“Last night he set fire to his bedding!”
This was new, and worse, even for Oliver. Forcing an easy tone, Alyson remarked, “How many broken apprenticeships is it? Tailor, goldsmith, lantern-maker? He’s a bright child. Could you ask him what he wants to do?”
“We’re his parents. We know what’s best for our son.”
Glad to escape the fireside again, Alyson stepped over the sheepskin hearthrug and stalked to the casement, squinting through the shutters for the sight of a squat, barrel-chested, flame-haired boy, the youngest of Felise’s brood of nine and the quickest in legs and wit. She felt pity and sadness for her friend and sympathy for Oliver, having been a tearaway herself.
“Why not send the young scamp to me? I’ll make him my page. He can sweat over sheep shearing, use up some of that fire.” Gilbert might condemn her as a bad influence, but at Alyson’s house, Oliver would be settled close to his mother’s, and Alyson would allow him to visit home often.
Poor, blind Gilbert, for not seeing how his youngest cared! Nor noticing how Oliver blamed himself for his mother’s shattered health, being clever enough to know how much Felise had been worn down by childbirth.
Smarting at life’s injustice, Alyson banged open a shutter and hollered down at the seemingly deserted herb garden, “I see you, Oliver, lounging by the lavender. You come out of there before you trample everything!”
A stifled sigh from the bench had her turning swiftly to kneel by her friend. “Sorry, Felise, that was ill-mannered! I forget myself. It’s the influence of Mars: it makes me too impetuous.”
Felise clasped the pleading hands. “Alyson, dear, I would not have you different. As for my boy—” Her fine black eyes swelled with tears.
Alyson leaned closer. “What is it? Not Oliver; you know he’s a good lad.”
The dry hands tightened their grip. “Alyson…has Gilbert a mistress?”
“Never! He dotes on you.”
“He’s going on pilgrimage. To the new shrine of the Virgin at Walsingham. He’s never wanted to go before, and I’m too feeble to accompany him.”
“So you assume he’s taking along a substitute wife? On a holy journey?”
“I know what happens between men and women on pilgrimages. You told me!” Felise released her friend and took up the posset again. “Alyson, could you go along? You love to travel, and you’ve never been to Walsingham. You could keep an eye on Gilbert for me.” She coughed dryly, clutching her chest, but smiling all the same. “You might even find yourself another husband!”
Alyson could still not believe it. “Tell me why you believe Gilbert’s unfaithful. Spare me no details!” The mystery of the false woodman she dismissed completely from her mind.
* * * *
The angelus was ringing all over Bath when Alyson left the smoky thatched house in Walcot Street. Nothing had been settled; not Oliver’s present place, nor Gilbert’s possible infidelity. Felise had certain pointers. Gilbert bathing regularly in the healing spring of the King’s Bath while not complaining of being ill. Gilbert bringing home a mirror one day and keeping it for his own use. Yet he showed no lessening in affection to his wife, so Alyson smiled comfortingly and said Felise must be mistaken.
But Felise had begged again for Alyson to go to Walsingham. A group of pilgrims were due to set out from Bath in five days’ time, Gilbert included, and Alyson promised to consider joining them.
Relieved to be out of doors after the baking heat of an invalid’s chamber, she strode out, swinging her aching arms, head up as she attacked the steeply rising path through the meadow. She wanted to be home before St. Michael’s noon bell sounded, and Bela hustled her more timid companions up the hill with the stranger’s food. A man in disguise might not be a threat to her girls, but it was best she be wary.
Ahead of her the squire-forester sawed slowly, clearly unused to the work. Puzzling again as to why he was doing it, Alyson called out, “Good morning!”
He stopped sawing, turned, and stared through her, not at her. He shouted something, words drowned by the noon bell, and Alyson jerked her head round, wondering what he had seen.
There was nothing below her but the nodding yellow cowslips of the meadow, the gate into Felise’s garden, and beyond that, the ochre dust of the London road and shimmer of distant houses. Disappointed, Alyson turned again, wondering what might have startled the youth into breaking his silence.
She saw him stagger and fall, try to crawl toward her, then slump face down into the grass. Alyson shouted and ran to him, but she was already too late. The sleek young body, curled over as though in sleep, was still and breathless, the golden curls dimmed by dust and blood. The stone that had shattered his skull had smashed open his right eye; he was beautiful no longer. He was dead.