Catherine LeVendeur is a creature of 12th century France whose life is a mirror of her times--but she is armed with a keen mind and lively curiosity.
When Catherine's grandfather sends for his family to tell them their well is going dry, Catherine is alarmed. The family's wealth depends on its status, and if the well goes dry, their castle will fall. Her grandfather seems wracked with a fear deeper than that, though--and there's a mysterious woman who is either old or young, dead or alive--depending on whom you ask.
Catherine doesn't believe the magical legends her family has handed down, that they are the descendents of a knight of Charlemagne's and a faerie--she puts her faith and distrust in the human condition.
When bodies being appearing--not ghostly specters, but freshly-dead humans--Catherine knows she's right, and must uncover the secrets of the witch in the well...
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Sharan Newman is a medieval historian and writer who has published eight medieval mysteries and won many awards, including the Macavity for Best First Mystery of 1993 (Death Comes As Epiphany), and the Herodatus Award for Best Historical Mystery of 1998 (Cursed in the Blood). She has a BA from Antioch College in Comparative Literature, an MA from Michigan State University in English and has completed the requirements for a Ph.D. in History at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is a longtime member of the Medieval Academy and has served on the advisory board for the Medieval Association of the Pacific. She has delivered a number of academic papers, taught at Temple University and UC Santa Barbara and continues to lecture widely on medieval topics.
The keep at Vielleteneuse, near Saint-Denis. Tuesday 3 ides August (August 9) 1149. Feast of Saint Alexander, burnt at the stake in 295, patron saint of charcoal burners. 28th Av 4909.
Dâ€™un lay vos dirai lâ€™aventere:
Nel tenez pas a troveure,
Veritez est ce que je dirai....
Iâ€™m going to tell you a tale of an adventure:
Donâ€™t believe itâ€™s only a story,
It is the complete truth....
â€”The lai of Guingamor, II. 1â€“3
It was the hottest summer in living memory. Blind Garna said so and no one doubted her. She had been the midwife for every soul now alive in the village. She swore that it was worse even than the year the crops had all shriveled to dust before the vigil of the Feast of Saint James when the forest had spontaneously burst into flame.
The heat sucked moisture from men, animals, plants, the earth itself. The summer spared no one, from village hut to castle.
Marie, lady of Vielleteneuse, yawned over her embroidery. After a week of working on it, the blue and yellow flowers on the green linen seemed insipid. The material crumpled under her perspiring hands and the needle kept slipping from her fingers. She looked over at her husbandâ€™s sister, Catherine, hoping for sympathy. But Catherine was poring over some musty parchment, apparently unaware of the heavy air.
Suddenly, Marie sat bolt upright. From below their tower the afternoon lethargy was cut by shouts and cries of anger. They were being attacked! She heard the shouts of the guards as they tried to stop the invaders. The clanking of metal against wood echoed harshly up the spiral staircase.
Startled from her reading, Catherine looked up. The noise was coming closer. She realized that the troop had managed to get past the guards and was even now climbing the narrow steps to the solar.
â€œMarie!â€? Catherine called a warning to her sister-in-law. â€œTheyâ€™re coming!â€?
â€œI have ears,â€? Marie answered. She put her embroidery safely back in its box. â€œAre you ready?â€?
Catherine shook her head as she hid the parchment under a cushion. â€œThere are too many for me!â€?
She ran to the window to call for help but it was too late. The hordes were upon them.
Marie stood proudly, her hands on her hips, defying them to attack.
â€œNot one of you touch me until youâ€™ve washed!â€? she ordered the intruders as they burst into the room. â€œHubert, put down that stick before you fall on it! Beron, stop poking your brother! Ma-bile, just what have you been eating? Evaine, give the baby to your aunt. Why did you run away from your nursemaids?â€?
Gingerly, Catherine reached out her arms and took her youngest child, Peter, from her niece. He was as filthy as the others, his tunic stained with grass, mud, and, she sniffed, probably horse dung, although it might be his own. At only a bit past the age of one, Peter wasnâ€™t about to look for a chamber pot.
Her other two children, James and Edana, were somewhere amidst the cluster of cousins. Catherine didnâ€™t even try to identify them under the muck. She held Peter out at armâ€™s length. The child let out a hungry wail. Catherine sighed and set him down long enough to strip off his short tunic before she nestled his naked body against the slit in her clothing. Peter relaxed at once and sucked eagerly at her breast.
â€œHeâ€™s still getting mud all over you,â€? Marie observed. â€œThatâ€™s what comes of not getting a wet nurse.â€?
Catherine shrugged. Sheâ€™d heard the argument before, but all the authors she had consulted said that a child could ingest weakness and unwholesome traits if fed by a hired woman. Nursing him herself was sometimes inconvenient, but necessary to the moral development of her son. And, although she knew Marie would laugh, Catherine loved being able to hold Peter, to snuggle his solid, healthy body against her. It was worth a bit of grime.
â€œWeâ€™ll have to change, anyway,â€? she reminded Marie, â€œif my brother is bringing back his hunting party to be fed tonight.â€?
â€œTheyâ€™ll get cold chicken and trout pies unless theyâ€™ve brought down a deer,â€? Marie answered. â€œYes, I know. I suppose I should see what else the cooks have come up with. There are berries enough and greens, I suppose. Although who would want to eat in this heat, I canâ€™t imagine. Now,â€? she returned to the children, â€œEvaine, get these wild animals back to their nurses to be washed and dressed. Beron and James, donâ€™t forget you are to help serve tonight.â€?
The two six-year-olds were hopping with excitement. After much pleading, they had convinced their parents that they were old enough to carry the hand towels and small trays of sweetmeats at dinner. They had been practicing all week and spent their idle hours speculating on how much they could snitch from the platters.
Catherine finished feeding the baby, who had fallen asleep. She held him until the nurse finally appeared to clean and dress him again. As he lay in her lap, she let her fingers play in his soft curls, golden as summer wheat. He seemed so sturdy, but Catherine knew how fragile children were. She had lost one at birth and another to a winter ague. No sacrifice was too great to ensure their safety.
With a sigh, Catherine gave her youngest into the nurse-maidâ€™s care and resigned herself to an evening in tight sleeves, hot slippers, and an elaborate headdress. It was the price she paid for spending the summer out of the miasma of the Paris air. Vielleteneuse was a small town well north of the city. Even though it was on an important roadway, hence the need for a fortified castle, it was cooler and quieter than Paris, with healthy breezes to sweep away foul humors that could cause sickness. At least it had been until this suffocating heat had settled in.
Still, she thought, as she stood impatiently later that afternoon waiting to be fitted into her sleeves, it would be nice if the price for the childrenâ€™s safety didnâ€™t include heavy, elegant robes.
Elegance was Catherineâ€™s main objection to life at Vielleteneuse. She wouldnâ€™t mind living in the castle if her brother, Guillaume, didnâ€™t take his position so seriously. Although their father had been only a merchant, Guillaume had been raised at the castle of their maternal grandfather, Gargenaud. The lords of Boisvert were very minor nobility in terms of property, but they had the pride that comes with knowing that not only had their ancestors fought with Charlemagne, but that they were able to name the links of that lineage all the way down to the present, almost four hundred years later.
Guillaume intended that he and his children live up to that heritage. His oldest son, Gerard, was now a page in the household of the count of Vermandois, regent of France. The boy was home for a visit until Saint Matthewâ€™s Eve and Guillaume took every possible opportunity to show him off to friends, neighbors, and important visitors.
Although much less concerned with position than Guillaume, Catherineâ€™s husband, Edgar, had encouraged her to pass the worst of the summer at the castle.
â€œItâ€™s time our children learned how to behave properly,â€? he had told her. â€œAnd speak. They sound like the urchins in the streets of Paris. Half the time I canâ€™t understand what theyâ€™re saying, their speech is so slurred and full of parleroie de vilain.â€?
Catherine had agreed. Whatever the children did in their lives, they would receive no advancement unless they were well spoken and knew how to behave among the nobility.
Of course, now that Catherineâ€™s children were in the country, they had begun to sound like the peasants who lived near the keep. Added to that, James was learning vulgarities from the men-at-arms that Catherine could only guess the meaning of, despite her classical education.
Still, she reminded herself, Canon Hugh of Saint Victor had written that no knowledge is useless. Perhaps Edgar would explain the words to her when he returned from Lombardy.
Catherine smiled at the thought of the conversation, trying to ignore the twist of worry in her stomach at the thought of her husband so far away. Edgarâ€™s party had been well protected, she reminded herself. The mountain passes were clear in the summer and he wore enough charms and herbal bags to keep him safe even from the sweating sickness. He would return soon. It wasnâ€™t as if he had gone off with King Louis on that disastrous expedition to the Holy Land. There were many women who had already learned that they were now widows and many others who would never know the fate of the men they loved.
â€œOw!â€? Catherine was brought out of her thoughts by a piercing pain in her arm.
â€œStop fidgeting and you wonâ€™t get stuck,â€? her maid, Samonie, told her. â€œIf you donâ€™t stay still, I might easily sew your inner sleeve to your robe. A fine fool youâ€™d look then!â€?
Catherine settled obediently. As a trickle of sweat slid down her back, she wondered again if there might not be some less tortuous way to educate the children.
She was barely sewn together and hadnâ€™t yet started winding the long scarf around her looped-up braids, when she heard a clatter of horsesâ€™ hooves on the hard earth of the bailey below. Samonie went to look.
â€œItâ€™s Lord Guillaume,â€? she told Catherine. â€œWhatever is he doing here? He shouldnâ€™t be back for hours. Nothing is ready!â€?
â€œIs anyone hurt?â€? Catherine asked.
â€œDonâ€™t think so,â€? the maid answered. â€œEveryone seems to be upright in the saddle, even young Gerard. Wait! One of the men has something...someone slung in front of him. If theyâ€™ve brought down some poacher for sport, ...
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