An Older Evil
April, 1386. Alyson Weaver, a widow of Bath, has already married five husbands and is still irrepressibly in her prime. When a handsome young stranger is murdered in her meadow overlooking St. Michael’s church, she resents it when her admirer, mild bailiff Lucas Fletcher, warns her not to interfere. Lucas has been intimidated into not investigating, but by whom? After her maid Bela is killed, Alyson decides she has no choice but to find out.
Spring begins the pilgrimage season, and a motley group of pilgrims - including Alice Perrers, the notorious former mistress of King Edward the Third - are preparing to leave Bath for the shrine of the Virgin at Walsingham in Norfolk. Before they set out, one of their number, Brother Martin, a friar, confesses sensationally to the manslaughter of the handsome stranger, named as Jehan of Flanders. Brother Martin is joining the pilgrimage to Walsingham as a penance and Jehan’s killing is officially "solved." But Alyson is unconvinced. To her, Brother Martin is a pitiful puppet and someone is pulling his strings - perhaps Bela’s murderer? Taking her mischievous godson Oliver as her page, Alyson joins the pilgrims to find out.
April 25th, 1386.
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.