This is one of the earliest - and best - of Michael Jecks' Templar Knights series. One not to be missed if, like me, you are a lapper-up of Medieval Mysteries.
The Prologue to this story opens:
There were two happy men that day in Cardinham in the summer of 1323, and one who was fearful.
Serlo the miller had every right to be concerned. Although he feared ruin, he was about to be murdered, for reasons he could not begin to comprehend, and at the hands of one whom he would never have suspected.
I like that: He was about to be murdered. You find yourself waiting for it, you are drawn in at once and don't have a long, long wait for anything to happen as in so many Michael Jecks books.
The two happy men that day in the summer of 1323 are of course Siman Puttock and Sir Baldwin Furnshill. They are happy because they have arrived back in England after their pilgrimage to Compostela in the north of Spain (read The Templar's Penance) and now have only to make their way from Cornwall into Devon and be home, at last.
But while they are in Cardinham a woman named Athelina is found hanged and her two sons dead with her in their cottage. Suicide. An act of desperation. In despair, she killed her children then took her own life.
Baldwin, predictably, does not agree. And the who-cares attitude of the brainless young coroner only increases his determination to bring the killer of the poor woman and the two boys to book.
There are the usual array of memorable characters Jecks creates each time he writes a book just for that one book. For instance, here you have the miller, Serlo – the one who is to be murdered – and his protective elder bother, the bailiff, Alexander, who will be desperate to avenge him. You have Richard atte Brooke, who returns to the village after fifteen years' absence, having left when his family all died in a fire. It seems that he hates Serlo, blames him, indirectly, for the death of his family. Will he be Serlo's murderer? But how does he fit into the three deaths we already have? It turns out that he is in love with, has always been in love with, poor Athelina.
And then there is Anne, the exquisitely beautiful Lady Anne, a starving orphan who became a prostitute and finally won the heart of Nicholas, the castellan, commander of the local garrison. He knows nothing of what she did as a child in order to survive, only that he adores her and that she is now pregnant; but is the baby his?
All this, and much more, takes place against the historical background of Mortimer's escape from the Tower. At this juncture no one knows whether he is still in England or has managed to get away to Ireland or France, but many sympathise with him and hate the grasping Despensers and despise the rather pathetic King Edward II whom the Despensers seem to lead by the nose. Will he flee to the south west and turn up in Cornwall? And what will they do if he does? One of the great things about this series is the way it arouses your interest in the history of the period. You close the novel and rush to the history book.
Read it, even if you have already read later ones in the series. The knowledge of what comes later won't spoil it, and reading it will fill in gaps in the on-going background story.