Continuing my (re)reading of the Hawkenlye Medieval Mysteries, featuring Sir Josse d’Aquin, a friend of Queen Eleanor (widow of Henry II), and Abbess Helewise of Hawkenlye Abbey, Josse’s guide, mentor and friend.
The Tavern in the Morning opens with the death by food-poisoning of a guest at Goody Anne’s tavern in Tonbridge – for which Goody Anne, quite naturally, is blamed. It soon becomes evident, though, at least to Josse, that that particular portion of the offending pie had been tampered with, that it was eaten by the wrong man, and that the intended victim is still at large: at large, yes, for it seems that he is the real villain and the attempt to kill him was an act of desperation.
But who actually made this attempt? Was it Joanna, the woman hiding in the Forest, to whose defence Josse rushes, and with whom he soon finds himself falling passionately in love? Or was it the old Wise Woman, Mag, who had suffered so much at the hands of men, and especially of priests: “they shunned her, cast her out, turned her into someone who had to hide herself away, so that people who genuinely needed her help had to sneak out to see her in the middle of the night,” cries Joanna.
Then another murder occurs; again only Sir Josse believes it is a murder, for the Sheriff once more dismisses it as an accident.
Her face, Josee noticed as he turned her over onto her back, was badly bruised.
‘She must have banged her face on the ice,’ Sheriff Pelham observed, leaning over Josse’s shoulder and breathing open-mouthed into his ear.
‘Think again,’ Josse said. ‘If she fell when the pond was iced over, she wouldn’t have been down there beneath the surface, frozen into it.’
Momentarily, the Sheriff was silenced.
Rapidly Josse inspected the rest of the corpse. As well as the bruised face – the nose had taken a direct hit, and, as he gently probed inside the mouth, he saw what looked like a recently-broken tooth – she had damage to both hands.
Josse held the dead hands in his.
Pity surging through him, he realised that someone had deliberately broken two fingers on each of the dead woman’s hands.
He laid her head down again and, on the sloping bank, she rolled over until she was lying face-down.
And Josse saw, on the back of the carefully-laundered white cap, a clear boot print.
Someone had savagely beaten her, then dragged her to the pond and held her head under the water with a foot until she died.
And next, the murderer turns his attention to Josse himself.
Well written, with real twelfth-century atmosphere: at the top of the heap Richard the Lionheart (son of Henry II), away on Crusade in the Holy Land and not heard of for months, and his brother John Lackland, itching to take over; and at the bottom the masses scheming and starving and suffering from corruption and injustice, and struggling to survive. While in the middle, a few like Sir Josse attempt to do what King and Church so singularly fail to do: right the wrongs done to people like Joanna and her son, and Goody Anne and old Mag. And outside all this, deep in the Forest, a heirarchy of Wise Women who still observe the ancient festivals such as Imbolc and Samhain and practise ancient arts like scrying with a magic mirror.