Continuing my (re)reading of the Hawkenlye Medieval Mysteries: I definitely like Sir Josse d'Acquin. Abbess Helewise can be a pain, but Josse is constantly patient and kind and human - not character traits usually associated with "the Normans"!
In The Chatter of the Maidens, Josse is taken to Hawkenlye as he might to a hospital in our days, suffering from severe blood poisoning when an old wound reopened and became infected.
Also at Hawkenlye is a new nun, Alba, and her two young sisters, all orphans. Josse in his sickbed is befriended by the youngest, a sweet child named Berthe. Alba, the eldest, though, is anything but sweet. And it turns out she has been lying to Helewise about her background.
Helewise decides to make the long journey from Kent to Ely, in the fen country of East Anglia, in order to find out exactly who Alba and her sisters are and why they came to her.
There are mysterious deaths, of course, two murders while Josse is out of action, both of which are linked to the Knights Templar. Here is a taste of one of them:
By first light, there was little left to show of the fire's victim. Most of the bones of the skeleton had detached from each other; all that remained that was instantly recognisable as human was the arch formed by a part of the rib cage.
And the bare, smoke-darkened skull, its empty eye sockets black and staring.
Next to the ribs, something else stuck up out of the floor of the cottage. It was a spike, made of iron, and the end protruding out of the floor had been wrought into a hoop. It had once been hammered into a wall as a tethering ring for horses.
In the depths of the crevice where the end of the hoop joined the upright section, a fragment of material had escaped the flames. It was tiny, and looked at a glance like the frayed end of a piece of twine.
It was not material. Nor was it twine. It was all that was left of the rope that had bound the victim securely to the spot where he was to die and be cremated.
And there are, once again, the mysterious People of the Forest, whom Helewise both condemns (they are pagans) and respects, and who provide the secret remedy when Josse is dying and the sister-infirmerer is at her wit's end. And then there is a young stranger in love with the beautiful middle sister, Meriel. Who is he?
Helewise is determined to get to the bottom of it all, but for the first time she is on her own. Josse, though no longer at death's door, cannot help her.