It is 1193 and the King, Richard the Lionhearted, is being held prisoner at Trifels Castle in what is now southern Germany. A huge ransom in gold has been demanded which Richard's mother, the ageing Eleanor of Aquitaine, is busy extorting from Richard's impoverished subjects in England. Apart from some sympathy shown by Abbess Helewise for her poorer tenants, though, we see little of the hardship, only enthusiasm for raising the money and freeing the King from his humiliating captivity. Probably because the main characters are all Norman aristocracy.
Sir Josse d'Aquin (our hero, if you are new to this series) is introduced to an elderly nobleman who almost immediately informs him that his very young and very beautiful wife, Galiena, is barren, and that she is desperate for a child. 'She is a herbalist herself, my Galiena [he tells Josse]. She has tried everything she can think of. Even what I believe are quite desperate remedies.' The anguished expression making him look even older, he went on, 'I see her at night, you see. Oh, she thinks that she does not disturb me, that I sleep blissfully on when she creeps out of my bed. But I awake, sir, always I awake. I perceive her sudden absence, even if I am deeply asleep. And I go to the window, from which I can look down on the garden, and I watch as she enacts her rites. Only often she conceals herself, you understand, she slips away to where I can no longer see her. It is easily done.' He sighed. Staring out over the garden, dropping to a whisper, he said, 'Naked under the moonlight she is, her lovely body so pale and white. So beautiful. So beautiful.'
Josse is embarrassed by these revelations, and sceptical about Galiena's supposed barrenness (after all, the man is old enough to be Galiena's grandfather) but keeps his thoughts to himself and, when pressed to do so, agrees that a visit to the infirmerer at Hawkenlye Abbey can do no harm and might well help.
Then a murder is committed – two murders – and Josse finds himself up against a strange pagan community left over from Saxon times and living deep in the marshes. What is the connection between the blonde, blue-eyed Galiena and these people whom she so resembles physically? Josse remembers the pagan dance Galiena used to perform in the garden at home before she ever went to Hawkenlye …
One night, having been caught in a great storm, Josse is sleeping out in a coppice on the cliff above the marshes and it is there he has his first "meeting" with the Saxon shaman of this community, the inheritor of an ancient tradition still living in Norman (Roman Catholic) times.
It was still totally dark. Never before had he experienced the sensation of literally not being able to see his hand in front of his eyes. He was just experimenting, wriggling the fingers of his right hand to see if he could make out the movement, when it happened.
There was no warning, not one single sound to put him on guard. There was just the one flash of bright light and , right there in front of him, a face staring intently into his, so close that he could look into the silver-grey eyes and feel the cool breath on his cheek.
Then darkness closed in again.
Sweat breaking out on his cold flesh and his heart in his throat, Josse fought for control. His body remembered its training even while his horror-struck mind was in shock and he was on his feet, sword in hand, lunging forward out of the shelter, before he knew it. Then his voice came back and he shouted in a great roar, 'Who's there? Show yourself!'
Nerve endings tingling as he subconsciously awaited the blow, he twisted from side to side, his sword making great deadly sweeps in a wide arc in front of him. 'Shiow yourself!'he cried again. 'I am armed and I will attack if you approach again without warning!'
But I cannot see him, he thought. How can I attack what I can't see?
He waited, listening.
There was nothing.
Presently the rain began to fall again.
As always with this series, excellently written, and this time with a stunning dénoument. Also this time, we see the Abbess Helewise at her best, and Josse, although he is as courageous as ever, now definitely a little slow on the uptake.