In the new Somershill Manor mystery, Lord Oswald de Lacy makes a devastating confession to his dying mother. But will he gain the forgiveness he seeks, or destroy his family? England, November 1370. Oswald de Lacy, Lord of Somershill Manor, makes a devastating confession to his dying mother. But will he gain the forgiveness he seeks—or destroy his family? In 1349, Oswald, the third son of the de Lacy family, was an eighteen-year-old novice monk at Kintham Abbey. Sent to collect herbs from the forest, Oswald comes across a terrified village girl. Frenzied with fear, she runs headlong into a swollen river. Oswald pulls her broken and bruised body from the water and returns her to the local village, only to discover that several other women have disappeared. A heinous killer is at work, but because all of the missing women come from impoverished families without influence, nobody seems to care. Oswald vows to find this killer himself—but as plague approaches, his beloved tutor Brother Peter insists they must stay inside the monastery. He turns instead to the women of the village for help, and particularly the enigmatic and beautiful Maud Woodstock—a woman who provokes strong emotions in Oswald. As he closes in on the killer, Oswald makes a discovery that is so utterly shocking that it threatens to destroy him and his family. Even as plague rages across England and death is at every door, Oswald must kill or be killed. And the discovery will be a secret that haunts him for the rest of his life.
Release date: September 7, 2021
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Print pages: 364
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Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed, and bloweth med,
And springeth the wude nu –
Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu;
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, well singes thu, cuccu;
Ne swike thu naver nu;
Sing cuccu, nu, sing cuccu,
Sing cuccu, sing cuccu, nu!
Summer has arrived,
Sing loudly, cuckoo!
The seed is growing, and the meadow is blooming,
And the wood springs anew,
The ewe is bleating for her lamb,
The cow is lowing for her calf;
The bullock is prancing, the buck is farting,
Sing merrily, cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, how well you sing, cuckoo,
Don’t ever stop now.
Sing, cuckoo, now, sing cuckoo,
Sing, cuckoo; sing cuckoo, now!
Kent, June 1349
It was the first hot day of summer, and I had been sent to the forest to find Sundew. Brother Peter had told me where to look – in the quaking bog near to the river, where this rare flower hid amongst the Water Mint and the Creeping Jenny. According to Peter, the Sundew attracted flies to its leaves with a sweet-smelling gum. Once stuck there, the unfortunate creatures could not escape their fate – to be wrapped in the leaf and then ingested. It sounded like a strange plant to me, and it certainly grew in a strange enough place – in an open mire that was now steaming in the midday heat.
I had been told to return to the monastery with a full basket of leaves, as they were needed urgently to treat one of our oldest monks – a brother with an abscess on his leg that wouldn’t heal. My tutor Brother Peter believed that the Sundew leaves would draw out the inflammation and ease the risk of the poison spreading throughout the patient’s body – though I wondered if this were the only use Peter intended for this plant. I had also heard that it could be cooked up as a sedative. And sedation was most certainly needed in this case, for the old monk’s constant groaning was so loud that it had disturbed the Abbot – a man whose patience was notoriously short. I knew that the Abbot had personally told Peter to solve the problem, even if it meant inducing the old monk into an almost permanent sleep.
As I tramped across the boggy ground that day, I must admit that I was feeling a little sorry for myself. The role of collecting herbs and plants in the forest had always belonged to a monk called Brother Merek. But then, about six weeks earlier, Merek had suddenly disappeared from the monastery, and somehow all of his chores had become mine. I half-wondered, as I made my way around the orange water of the bog, whether I might come across Merek’s dead body between the moss and lousewort, since his last known whereabouts were somewhere in this area. Though this thought was just my own fanciful imagination, because it was much more likely that Merek had run away with a woman. At least that’s what some of the brothers were saying.
As it turned out it wasn’t Merek who I found that day. It was somebody else. But I’ll soon come on to that.
After filling my basket with the leaves and stalks of the Sundew plant, I retreated to the trees beyond the bog, looking for somewhere to wash my hands. The Sundew was as sticky as Peter had warned, and I needed to remove the gum and unpleasant scent from my skin. Not wanting to use the dirty water in the bog, I wandered a little way between the trees, where the soil was firmer and drier, soon finding a shallow stream. It was here, as I let my hands dangle in the cold water that I heard a noise behind me – a rustling and snapping of twigs. When I turned around, I saw a small face looking out at me from between the stems of a hazel bush. I recognised her immediately. It was Agnes Wheeler, a girl who sometimes came to the monastery to take away our clothes and sheets for washing and mending.
‘What’s the matter Agnes?’ I called out. ‘What are you doing here?’
But these simple words only terrified her. That’s what I remember most. Her face was pale and panicked. Her eyes were flitting about in fear. I called out again offering my assistance, but this time she darted out from the bush and ran away from me, soon disappearing between the trees.
I only wanted to help her. That’s why I chased the girl, even though I shouldn’t have done it. The nearer I got to her, the faster she ran, until she came to the river. I thought she would stop here as it was a natural barrier. But instead she carried on, wading into the fast waters without looking back.
I shouted from the bank. ‘Agnes. Stop! It’s dangerous in there.’
She turned to speak to me at last, and I could see that her hair was tangled and her clothes were torn. ‘Keep away,’ she hissed. ‘Keep away from me, priest!’
‘But it’s me, Agnes. Brother Oswald from Kintham Abbey,’ I said, not understanding her reaction. I was only a few years older than Agnes and we had always been on good terms. I held out my hand and started to wade out, but this was my worst mistake of all. To escape me, she stepped out too far, where the water was deeper and the flow was faster. Within a flash she was washed away – her hands flailing as she vanished beneath the rapid, plunging flow.
I didn’t know what to do. Try to swim after her, or run along the banks and try to fish her out. I chose the second option, as I wasn’t a strong swimmer and my woollen habit was already heavy with water. I dragged myself out of the river, and found a path along the banks, hoping to catch sight of Agnes again. All the time, I was praying that she might have grabbed an overhead branch or clambered to safety at a shallow turn. But that’s not what happened.
I eventually found Agnes, washed up in a pool, where the waters now lapped gently at the reeds, exhausted after their furious descent from the higher ground. It was here that I dragged her from the river and laid her out in the mud, trying to drain the water from her lungs. Her limp, silent body showed no signs of life however, no matter how hard I tried to shake the air back into her. She was dead, and it was my fault. I hadn’t meant to kill her, but I had.
Somershill, November 1370
Mother pulled the sheet over her whiskery chin and looked at me in horror. ‘God’s bones, Oswald,’ she said. ‘What a dreadful story.’
‘I know,’ I replied. ‘Not a day has passed when I haven’t regretted my actions. Not a day has passed when I haven’t wished I could return to save Agnes’s life.’
Mother thought about this for a moment, before she muttered something under her breath and then closed her eyes. I thought she was feigning sleep at first, but soon she began to snore, proving that she hadn’t been thoroughly horrified – not in a sufficient amount to prevent sleep. In her hand she clutched a letter – a fold of yellowing parchment with a broken wax seal at its centre. As her chest rose and fell, this letter slipped from her hand and rested momentarily on the bedspread, giving me the idea to grab it from her possession and throw it into the fire. This would have solved a lot of problems, and I might have done it, except that Mother half-opened an eye and the opportunity passed.
‘Would you like me to carry on?’ I asked, pulling my guilty hand away. The light was poor, since the heavy worsted curtains were drawn on three sides of the bed – but I could still see that Mother’s face was gaunt, the loose skin hanging from her bones as if she were already dead.
‘I don’t know what’s the matter with you, Oswald,’ she muttered. ‘Coming up with stories like that.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I thought you wanted to know the truth about the letter before you died.’
She opened her eyes fully, and swivelled her head towards me like an owl. ‘I’m not dying,’ she said. ‘Everybody’s wrong about that. I’ll be dancing at the next Lammas Day Feast. Don’t you worry.’
‘Well, I sincerely hope that’s true,’ I replied, as a knock sounded at the door.
I answered it, finding that our visitor was my mother’s physician, Thomas Crouch – a thin-faced, uninspiring man who was proudly brandishing his jar of leeches. ‘May I attend to Lady Somershill now?’ he asked, trying to peer over my shoulder. ‘It is time for your mother’s bloodletting.’
I might have refused him entry, had Mother not already heard his voice. ‘Let him in, Oswald,’ she called. ‘Let him in. Crouch is the very man to cure me. He has the finest leeches in Kent, you know. They can extract the foulest of corruptions.’
I bowed my head and stood aside to allow Crouch to pass, not wanting to look too closely as he stood beside Mother’s bed and lifted the lid from his jar. To this day I remain unconvinced about the efficacy of bloodletting, particularly with the assistance of leeches. I am a rare detractor from this popular treatment, however. If a person believes that attaching bloodsuckers to their flesh will provide some benefit, then who am I to disagree?
Mother was certainly an enthusiast. And if her claims about these particular leeches were true, then they would have a colossal task ahead of them. For there was a deep and embedded seam of corruption to draw from Mother’s body.
‘I’ll come back later,’ I said, ‘when you’re feeling more sanguine.’
‘Don’t bother,’ she answered. ‘I’ll be down for supper.’
But Mother was not down for supper. The leeches had drained more than the corruption from her body, and we were informed by Crouch that she was too exhausted to even take a bowl of broth that evening. The next morning, she would only admit a priest and her lady’s maid to her chamber, prompting us all to believe that her death was imminent. The carpenter was called upon to finish her coffin. Her grave was dug beside the chapel and letters were written, but not yet sent, to distant relatives.
Whilst the commotion and drama of a looming family death was sweeping through the house, I’m ashamed to say that I spent my time wondering how I might now retrieve the fateful letter whilst it was still in Mother’s possession. I knew it would be difficult to steal, since Mother had placed it under the neckline of her chemise for security – as if she had anticipated a theft. Even so, I made sure to sit outside the door of her bedchamber, ensuring that I would be the first person to hear the news of her death, able to quickly grab the letter before anybody else found it.
Luckily I had no companions at this station, as my sister Clemence was far more interested in sorting out Mother’s jewellery than keeping this vigil. But, as it turned out, it was all an unnecessary panic. Mother did not die that day. Nor the next. And by the third day, she was back to her usual self – issuing instructions that the children of the household should stop running about in the courtyard, that she should be served sweeter food at more regular intervals, and that my presence at her bedside was required immediately.
I re-entered the room, thankful that her maid had thought to crush some rosemary and lavender in a mortar. By this point Mother had been locked inside those four walls for many weeks, and was beginning to exude the sour odour of a stable that needs mucking out. That said, her appearance was much fresher than her perfume. In fact, she was in fine spirits – sitting upright in the bed, with her hair neatly combed under a veil and an embroidered shawl draped over her shoulders. I noticed immediately that she was holding the letter in her right hand.
‘Please, Oswald, sit down,’ she instructed, as she pointed to the stool beside the bed. ‘Now that I’m feeling better, I’d like you to carry on with your story.’
‘Are you sure?’ I replied, duly taking my place beside her. ‘You’ve been very unwell, and my story upset you the last time we spoke.’
She gave a short, dismissive laugh and then waved the folded letter under my nose. ‘I don’t think I have a choice, do you?’
I shrugged. ‘Perhaps you could just give me the letter?’ I suggested optimistically. ‘I could throw it into the fire, and we need never think about it again.’
Mother ignored this idea. ‘This is your handwriting, isn’t it?’ she said, pointing at the wording on the front fold of the letter.
‘Yes,’ I sighed. ‘It is.’ How vividly I remembered writing this letter, even though I hadn’t seen the thing for over twenty years. Not that I had ever forgotten about its existence, of course. Indeed, when I’d first been recalled to Somershill from the monastery, I had spent many days searching for this same letter in my father’s library. He and my two older brothers had only just died of plague, bestowing the role of Lord Somershill onto my shoulders at the tender age of eighteen. Yet, despite the fact that I was now the keeper of over a thousand acres and the master of a grand house, complete with hunting forests, cellars and a stable of fine horses, I had cared for little except finding this letter. In truth, I had needed to find it and destroy it, before it destroyed me. But, after many weeks of fruitless searching, I had finally given up – satisfying myself that the letter had been lost or thrown away, never suspecting that it had lain hidden amongst my mother’s possessions for all these years. Never suspecting that she would discover it when she was setting her worldly affairs in order before she died.
Mother cleared her throat. ‘So you agree there are questions to be answered?’ she said.
I hesitated. ‘Yes.’
She let a smile creep across her face, taking some pleasure in my discomfort. ‘Would you call it a confession, Oswald?’ she asked, her eyes now glinting with mischief.
I looked away, not wanting to agree. But she was right. This was a confession. If I did not tell this story to my mother before she died, then I would be haunted by its shadow forever. ‘Very well,’ I said. ‘Let us call it a confession.’ I paused and took her hand, finding it cold to the touch. ‘But some parts of this story will be very difficult for you to hear,’ I said.
‘I’m sure I’ll survive,’ she said smugly.
‘There are worse episodes than the girl drowning in the river,’ I said. ‘I want you to understand that before I begin.’
‘Don’t talk to me like a child, Oswald,’ she replied. ‘I know my own mind. If I say that I wish to hear this story, then that’s exactly what I want.’
‘Even if this causes you pain?’
‘What do you mean?’ she said. ‘Why would any of this cause pain to me?’
She thought for a moment, before she heaved a long sigh and leant back against the bolster. Her eyes had lost their newly found spirit, and suddenly she looked crumpled and diminished, like a deflated bladder ball.
‘I wish that I had not found this letter, Oswald,’ she whispered. ‘I truly do. I was about to throw it into the fire, alongside the other bits and pieces that need to go before I die. But then I recognised your handwriting, and I made the mistake of reading the damned thing.’ She lifted the fold of parchment and deposited it back in its safe place, between her breast and the chemise. ‘How can I have a good death, Oswald, if I do not know the truth about this letter?’ she asked me. ‘How can I journey to the next world and shorten my time in Purgatory, if I have not heard my son’s confession? What hope is there for me, if I have not forgiven you fully in my heart? You know that the priest will ask me this question, before I receive the Last Sacraments? Have I forgiven those who have harmed me? What do you expect me to do? Lie to the man?’
‘No. Of course not,’ I said. ‘But If I tell you the truth, please don’t be angry that you’ve heard it.’
She hesitated. ‘How can I be angry?’ she replied. ‘Unless your confession is not true.’
‘It will be true, Mother,’ I said. ‘Believe me.’
‘Very well then,’ she answered. ‘Please continue, Oswald.’ She closed her eyes. ‘You were on a riverbank, I believe. The girl was dead.’
Kent, June 1349
I tried to lift Agnes’s body, but she was difficult to manoeuvre – her limbs loose and heavy, her head falling from side to side with the weight of a net sinker. Even though I had dealt with dead bodies in the infirmary on many occasions before, I always had the help of a lay brother. I had never had to struggle myself with the wayward pliancy of a corpse in the first minutes of death. The way it flops and dangles and cannot be controlled.
I gave up after a while and laid her body back onto the ground, unable to look away from her drowned features, and seeing a very different girl to the Agnes I’d known from her visits to Kintham Abbey. Her face was blank and serene – as if she could never have uttered those words to me. Keep away from me, priest. Why had she spoken that way? Why had she not been able to distinguish between friend and foe? I felt my stomach roll, knowing that I should have realised that Agnes wanted to be left alone. If I had been more cautious, then the girl would still be alive.
I rubbed a tear from the corner of my eye and compelled myself to look closer, soon seeing the reason for Agnes’s terror. Her clothes were bloodstained and roughly torn – injuries that could not have been caused by drowning. It was clear to me now that she had been attacked before we met. There were bruises on her arms, and there were banded, red marks at her wrists and ankles. I had seen such wounds in the past – on the prisoners who were dragged straight from the Royal Court to the gallows. They were the ugly, raw abrasions that can only be burnt into the skin by the rough fibres of a rope.
I pushed Agnes’s matted, wet hair away from her forehead to reveal a fragile and delicately beautiful face that was almost childlike. I had an idea what had happened to her, though I chose not to raise her skirts to confirm my suspicion. And what would I have been looking for, anyway? Instead, I pushed Agnes gently onto her side, to see if there were injuries elsewhere on her body. And sure enough, once I had poked my fingers through the gaping rip in the back of her tunic, I could see a series of scratches on her skin – each deep and vertical, starting at her shoulder and ending at the small of her back.
I closed the tunic, pulling one side of the rip across the other, feeling sickened at first before experiencing another emotion – the sudden urge to run away. Nobody knew that I had been here. Nobody knew that I’d met Agnes and then mistakenly chased her into the river. Running away seemed like the right solution, and yet, even as I stood up, I knew that this was an act of pure cowardice. I could not leave Agnes’s body here, at the mercy of the foxes and the crows.
My next thought was to bury her, but I could not dig out a grave with my bare hands – not a pit deep enough to lay her body to rest. And anyway, if I were to bury her, then I would have no proof that she had been attacked. Her injuries were important pieces of evidence – pointers that might help to identify the person who had previously assaulted her. There was only one option – to face up to the consequences of my mistake and return Agnes to her home village of Stonebrook. Once she was there, the Constable could examine her body before she was buried in a Christian grave.
I made reasonable progress with this plan, once I’d established that it was easier to lift Agnes’s body over my shoulder and not in my arms. I still had to rest at regular intervals, however, where I suffered the same, terrible temptation – that I should hide her body in some undergrowth and then run away. It was an urge that I eventually managed to conquer, though I took no pride in this. The memory of that day still haunts me. Trudging through the forest with a dead girl draped over my shoulder like a wet shawl – her arms and legs swinging against my habit. The smell of her sodden, woollen clothes mixed with the stink of my sweat.
It was late afternoon when I finally stumbled into the small village of Stonebrook – a settlement of timber-framed houses and barns, arranged along a single street that ended at a muddy green. It was an unremarkable sort of place – the type of village you might find at the bottom of any country lane in Kent. Its only exceptional feature was the wall of trees that surrounded the outlying fields, bearing down on the place like an army of occupation and giving Stonebrook an oppressive, enclosed feel.
A crowd had gathered about me by the time that I reached the village green, where I rested Agnes’s body onto a grassy bank and called for somebody to rouse her family and the local Constable. Stonebrook was located in lands that were owned by my monastery, so the villagers were used to seeing monks from Kintham about the place – though not one who had arrived with a dead girl across his shoulder. Needless to say, I was met with a mixture of astonishment and horror, as the villagers jostled against one another to get a look at Agnes’s miserable, stiffening body. The women huddled together and held their hands to their mouths in shock. The men simply stared on in silence.
Eventually word of Agnes’s death reached her only family – her mother, a poor widow named Beatrice Wheeler, who now pushed her way through the crowd and then grasped at her daughter’s body, shaking the girl repeatedly as if this might bring her back to life. I didn’t intervene, but when Beatrice had finally convinced herself that nothing would wake Agnes, I gently touched her shoulder. She looked up at me with eyes that were dazed and bewildered. ‘Is it true, what they’re saying?’ she said. ‘You found her?’
I nodded. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It was me.’
‘In the forest,’ I answered. ‘Near to the mire.’
‘The mire?’ The woman’s mouth hung open, before her face tightened into a frown.
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