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Changeling

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Philippa Gregory, Order of Darkness

Philippa Gregory, Order of Darkness


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  • 1. Also by Philippa Gregory The Tudor Court Novels The Constant Princess The Other Boleyn Girl The Boleyn Inheritance The Queen’s Fool The Virgin’s Lover The Other Queen The Cousin’s War Series Lady of the Rivers The White Queen The Red QueenThe Kingmaker’s Daughter The Wideacre Trilogy Wideacre The Favoured Child Meridon
  • 2. Historical Novels The Wise Woman Fallen Skies A Respectable Trade Earthly Joys Virgin Earth Modern Novels Alice Hartley’s Happiness Perfectly Correct The Little House Zelda’s Cut Short Stories Bread and Chocolate Non-FictionThe Women of the Cousins’ War
  • 3. First published in Great Britain in 2012 by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd A CBS COMPANY Text copyright © 2012 by Philippa GregoryMap of Mediterranean Sea used on endpapers from world map by Camaldolese monk Fra Mauro, 1449. Detail © DEA / F. FERRUZZI / Getty Images Journey map, abbey plan and chapterhead illustrations © Fred van Deelen, 2012 Section break artwork © Sally Taylor, 2012 This book is copyright under the Berne Convention. No reproduction without permission. All rights reserved.The right of Philippa Gregory to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 ofthe Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988. Simon & Schuster UK Ltd
  • 4. 1st Floor 222 Gray’s Inn Road London WC1X 8HB www.simonandschuster.co.uk Simon & Schuster Australia, Sydney Simon & Schuster India, New DelhiA CIP catalogue copy for this book is available from the British Library. HB ISBN: 978-0-85707-730-1 TPB ISBN: 978-0-85707-731-8 E-BOOK ISBN: 978-0-85707-733-2 This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either aproduct of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, events or locales, is entirely coincidental. Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY
  • 5. CONTENTSCASTLE SANT’ ANGELO, ROME,JUNE 1453THE CASTLE OF LUCRETILI, JUNE1453THE ABBEY OF LUCRETILI,OCTOBER 1453VITTORITO, ITALY, OCTOBER1453
  • 6. CASTLE SANT’ANGELO, ROME, JUNE 1453The hammering on the door shothim into wakefulness like ahandgun going off in his face. Theyoung man scrambled for thedagger under his pillow, stumblingto his bare feet on the icy floor of
  • 7. the stone cell. He had beendreaming of his parents, of his oldhome, and he gritted his teethagainst the usual wrench oflonging for everything he had lost:the farmhouse, his mother, the oldlife. The thunderous bangingsounded again, and he held thedagger behind his back as heunbolted the door and cautiouslyopened it a crack. A dark-hoodedfigure stood outside, flanked bytwo heavy-set men, each carryinga burning torch. One of themraised his torch so the light fell onthe slight dark-haired youth,naked to the waist, wearing onlybreeches, his hazel eyes blinkingunder a fringe of dark hair. Hewas about seventeen, with a faceas sweet as a boy, but with thebody of a young man forged by
  • 8. hard work. ‘Luca Vero?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You are to come with me.’ They saw him hesitate. ‘Don’tbe a fool. There are three of usand only one of you and thedagger you’re hiding behind yourback won’t stop us.’ ‘It’s an order,’ the other mansaid roughly. ‘Not a request. Andyou are sworn to obedience.’ Luca had sworn obedience tohis monastery, not to thesestrangers, but he had beenexpelled from there and now itseemed he must obey anyonewho shouted a command. Heturned to the bed, sat to pull onhis boots, slipping the dagger intoa scabbard hidden inside the softleather, pulled on a linen shirt,and then threw his ragged woollen
  • 9. cape around his shoulders. ‘Who are you?’ he asked,coming unwillingly to the door. The man made no answer, butsimply turned and led the way, asthe two guards waited in thecorridor for Luca to come out ofhis cell and follow. ‘Where are you taking me?’ The two guards fell in behindhim without answering. Lucawanted to ask if he was underarrest, if he was being marched toa summary execution, but he didnot dare. He was fearful of thevery question, he acknowledgedto himself that he was terrified ofthe answer. He could feel himselfsweating with fear under hiswoollen cape, though the air wasicy and the stone walls were coldand damp. He knew that he was in the
  • 10. most serious trouble of his younglife. Only yesterday four dark-hooded men had taken him fromhis monastery and brought himhere, to this prison, without aword of explanation. He did notknow where he was, or who washolding him. He did not knowwhat charge he might face. He didnot know what the punishmentmight be. He did not know if hewas going to be beaten, torturedor killed. ‘I insist on seeing a priest, Iwish to confess . . .’ he said. They paid no attention to him atall, but pressed him on, down thenarrow stone-flagged gallery. Itwas silent, with the closed doorsof cells on either side. He couldnot tell if it was a prison or amonastery, it was so cold andquiet. It was just after midnight
  • 11. and the place was in darkness andutterly still. Luca’s guides made nonoise as they walked along thegallery, down the stone steps,through a great hall, and thendown a little spiral staircase, intoa darkness that grew more andmore black as the air grew moreand more cold. ‘I demand to know where youare taking me,’ Luca insisted, buthis voice shook with fear. No-one answered him; but theguard behind him closed up alittle. At the bottom of the steps, Lucacould just see a small archeddoorway and a heavy woodendoor. The leading man opened itwith a key from his pocket andgestured that Luca should gothrough. When he hesitated, theguard behind him simply moved
  • 12. closer until the menacing bulk ofhis body pressed Luca onwards. ‘I insist . . .’ Luca breathed. A hard shove thrust him throughthe doorway and he gasped as hefound himself flung to the veryedge of a high narrow quay, aboat rocking in the river a longway below, the far bank a darkblur in the distance. Luca flinchedback from the brink. He had asudden dizzying sense that theywould be as willing to throw himover, onto the rocks below, as totake him down the steep stairs tothe boat. The first man went light-footeddown the wet steps, stepped intothe boat and said one word to theboatman who stood in the stern,holding the vessel against thecurrent with the deft movementsof a single oar. Then he looked
  • 13. back up to the handsome white-faced young man. ‘Come,’ he ordered. Luca could do nothing else. Hefollowed the man down the greasysteps, clambered into the boatand seated himself in the prow.The boatman did not wait for theguards but turned his craft intothe middle of the river and let thecurrent sweep them around thecity wall. Luca glanced down intothe dark water. If he were to flinghimself over the side of the boathe would be swept downstream –he might be able to swim with thecurrent and make it to the otherside and get away. But the waterwas flowing so fast he thought hewas more likely to drown, if theydid not come after him in the boatand knock him senseless with theoar.
  • 14. ‘My lord,’ he said, trying fordignity. ‘May I ask you now wherewe are going?’ ‘You’ll know soon enough,’ camethe terse reply. The river ran likea wide moat around the tall wallsof the city of Rome. The boatmankept the little craft close to the leeof the walls, hidden from thesentries above, then Luca sawahead of them the looming shapeof a stone bridge and, just beforeit, a grille set in an arched stonedoorway of the wall. As the boatnosed inwards, the grille slippednoiselessly up and, with onepractised push of the oar, theyshot inside, into a torch-lit cellar. With a deep lurch of fear Lucawished that he had taken hischance with the river. There werehalf a dozen grim-faced menwaiting for him and, as the
  • 15. boatman held a well-worn ring onthe wall to steady the craft, theyreached down and hauled Lucaout of the boat, to push him downa narrow corridor. Luca felt, ratherthan saw, thick stone walls oneither side, smooth woodenfloorboards underfoot, heard hisown breathing, ragged with fear,then they paused before a heavywooden door, struck it with asingle knock and waited. A voice from inside the roomsaid ‘Come!’ and the guard swungthe door open and thrust Lucainside. Luca stood, heartpounding, blinking at the suddenbrightness of dozens of waxcandles, and heard the door closesilently behind him. A solitary man was sitting at atable, papers before him. He worea robe of rich velvet in so dark a
  • 16. blue that it appeared almostblack, the hood completelyconcealing his face from Luca,who stood before the table andswallowed down his fear.Whatever happened, he decided,he was not going to beg for hislife. Somehow, he would find thecourage to face whatever wascoming. He would not shamehimself, nor his tough stoicalfather, by whimpering like a girl. ‘You will be wondering why youare here, where you are, and whoI am,’ the man said. ‘I will tell youthese things. But, first, you mustanswer me everything that I ask.Do you understand?’ Luca nodded. ‘You must not lie to me. Yourlife hangs in the balance here, andyou cannot guess what answers Iwould prefer. Be sure to tell the
  • 17. truth: you would be a fool to diefor a lie.’ Luca tried to nod but found hewas shaking. ‘You are Luca Vero, a novicepriest at the monastery of StXavier, having joined themonastery when you were a boyof eleven? You have been anorphan for the last three years,since your parents died when youwere fourteen?’ ‘My parents disappeared,’ Lucasaid. He cleared his tight throat.‘They may not be dead. Theywere captured by an Ottoman raidbut nobody saw them killed.Nobody knows where they arenow; but they may very well bealive.’ The Inquisitor made a minutenote on a piece of paper beforehim. Luca watched the tip of the
  • 18. black feather as the quill movedacross the page. ‘You hope,’ theman said briefly. ‘You hope thatthey are alive and will come backto you.’ He spoke as if hope wasthe greatest folly. ‘I do.’ ‘Raised by the brothers, swornto join their holy order, yet youwent to your confessor, and thento the abbot, and told them thatthe relic that they keep at themonastery, a nail from the truecross, was a fake.’ The monotone voice wasaccusation enough. Luca knew thiswas a citation of his heresy. Heknew also, that the onlypunishment for heresy was death. ‘I didn’t mean . . .’ ‘Why did you say the relic was afake?’ Luca looked down at his boots,
  • 19. at the dark wooden floor, at theheavy table, at the lime washedwalls – anywhere but at theshadowy face of the softly spokenquestioner. ‘I will beg the abbot’spardon and do penance,’ he said.‘I didn’t mean heresy. Before God,I am no heretic. I meant nowrong.’ ‘I shall be the judge if you are aheretic, and I have seen youngermen than you, who have done andsaid less than you, crying on therack for mercy, as their joints popfrom their sockets. I have heardbetter men than you begging forthe stake, longing for death astheir only release from pain.’ Luca shook his head at thethought of the Inquisition, whichcould order this fate for him andsee it done, and think it to theglory of God. He dared to say
  • 20. nothing more. ‘Why did you say the relic was afake?’ ‘I did not mean . . .’ ‘Why?’ ‘It is a piece of a nail aboutthree inches long, and a quarter ofan inch wide,’ Luca saidunwillingly. ‘You can see it, thoughit is now mounted in gold andcovered with jewels. But you canstill see the size of it.’ The Inquisitor nodded. ‘So?’ ‘The abbey of St Peter has a nailfrom the true cross. So does theabbey of St Joseph. I looked in themonastery library to see if therewere any others, and there areabout four hundred nails in Italyalone, more in France, more inSpain, more in England.’ The man waited inunsympathetic silence.
  • 21. ‘I calculated the likely size ofthe nails,’ Luca said miserably. ‘Icalculated the number of piecesthat they might have been brokeninto. It didn’t add up. There arefar too many relics for them all tocome from one crucifixion. TheBible says a nail in each palm andone through the feet. That’s onlythree nails.’ Luca glanced at thedark face of his interrogator. ‘It’snot blasphemy to say this, I don’tthink. The Bible itself says itclearly. Then, in addition, if youcount the nails used in buildingthe cross, there would be four atthe central joint to hold the crossbar. That makes seven originalnails. Only seven. Say each nail isabout five inches long. That’sabout thirty-five inches of nailsused in the true cross. But thereare thousands of relics. That’s not
  • 22. to say whether any nail or anyfragment is genuine or not. It’snot for me to judge. But I can’thelp but see that there are justtoo many nails for them all tocome from one cross.’ Still the man said nothing. ‘It’s numbers,’ Luca saidhelplessly. ‘It’s how I think. I thinkabout numbers – they interestme.’ ‘You took it upon yourself tostudy this? And you took it uponyourself to decide that there aretoo many nails in churches aroundthe world for them all to be true,for them all to come from thesacred cross?’ Luca dropped to his knees,knowing himself to be guilty. ‘Imeant no wrong,’ he whisperedupwards at the shadowy figure. ‘Ijust started wondering, and then I
  • 23. made the calculations, and thenthe abbot found my paper where Ihad written the calculations and—’He broke off. ‘The abbot, quite rightly,accused you of heresy andforbidden studies, misquoting theBible for your own purposes,reading without guidance,showing independence of thought,studying without permission, atthe wrong time, studyingforbidden books . . .’ the mancontinued, reading from the list.He looked at Luca: ‘Thinking foryourself. That’s the worst of it,isn’t it? You were sworn into anorder with certain establishedbeliefs and then you startedthinking for yourself.’ Luca nodded. ‘I am sorry.’ ‘The priesthood does not needmen who think for themselves.’
  • 24. ‘I know,’ Luca said, very low. ‘You made a vow of obedience –that is a vow not to think foryourself.’ Luca bowed his head, waiting tohear his sentence. The flame of the candlesbobbed as somewhere outside adoor opened and a cold draughtblew through the rooms. ‘Always thought like this? Withnumbers?’ Luca nodded. ‘Any friends in the monastery?Have you discussed this withanyone?’ He shook his head. ‘I didn’tdiscuss this.’ The man looked at his notes.‘You have a companion calledFreize?’ Luca smiled for the first time.‘He’s just the kitchen boy at the
  • 25. monastery,’ he said. ‘He took aliking to me as soon as I arrived,when I was just eleven. He wasonly twelve or thirteen himself. Hemade up his mind that I was toothin, he said I wouldn’t last thewinter. He kept bringing me extrafood. He’s just the spit lad really.’ ‘You have no brother or sister?’ ‘I am alone in the world.’ ‘You miss your parents?’ ‘I do.’ ‘You are lonely?’ The way hesaid it sounded like yet anotheraccusation. ‘I suppose so. I feel very alone,if that is the same thing.’ The man rested the blackfeather of the quill against his lipsin thought. ‘Your parents . . .’ Hereturned to the first question ofthe interrogation. ‘They werequite old when you were born?’
  • 26. ‘Yes,’ Luca said, surprised. ‘Yes.’ ‘People talked at the time, Iunderstand. That such an oldcouple should suddenly give birthto a son, and such a handsomeson, who grew to be such anexceptionally clever boy?’ ‘It’s a small village,’ Luca saiddefensively. ‘People have nothingto do but gossip.’ ‘But clearly, you are handsome.Clearly, you are clever. And yetthey did not brag about you, orshow you off. They kept youquietly at home.’ ‘We were close,’ Luca replied.‘We were a close small family. Wetroubled nobody else, we livedquietly, the three of us.’ ‘Then why did they give you tothe Church? Was it that theythought you would be safer insidethe Church? That you were
  • 27. specially gifted? That you neededthe Church’s protection?’ Luca, still on his knees, shuffledin discomfort. ‘I don’t know. I wasa child: I was only eleven. I don’tknow what they were thinking.’ The Inquisitor waited. ‘They wanted me to have theeducation of a priest,’ he saideventually. ‘My father—’ Hepaused at the thought of hisbeloved father, of his grey hairand his hard grip, of histenderness to his funny quirkylittle son. ‘My father was veryproud that I learned to read, that Itaught myself about numbers. Hecouldn’t write or read himself, hethought it was a great talent.Then, when some gypsies camethrough the village, I learned theirlanguage.’ The man made a note. ‘You can
  • 28. speak languages?’ ‘People remarked that I learnedto speak Romany in a day. Myfather thought that I had a gift, aGod-given gift. It’s not souncommon,’ he tried to explain.‘Freize, the spit boy, is good withanimals, he can do anything withhorses, he can ride anything. Myfather thought that I had a giftlike that, only for studying. Hewanted me to be more than afarmer. He wanted me to dobetter.’ The Inquisitor sat back in hischair as if he was weary oflistening, as if he had heard morethan enough. ‘You can get up.’ He looked at the paper with itsfew black ink notes as Lucascrambled to his feet. ‘Now I willanswer the questions that will bein your mind. I am the spiritual
  • 29. commander of an Order appointedby the Holy Father, the Popehimself, and I answer to him forour work. You need not know myname nor the name of the Order.We have been commanded byPope Nicholas V to explore themysteries, the heresies and thesins, to explain them wherepossible, and defeat them wherewe can. We are making a map ofthe fears of the world, travellingoutwards from Rome to the veryends of Christendom to discoverwhat people are saying, what theyare fearing, what they arefighting. We have to know wherethe Devil is walking through theworld. The Holy Father knows thatwe are approaching the end ofdays.’ ‘The end of days?’ ‘When Christ comes again to
  • 30. judge the living, the dead, and theundead. You will have heard thatthe Ottomans have takenConstantinople, the heart of theByzantine empire, the centre ofthe Church in the east?’ Luca crossed himself. The fall ofthe eastern capital of the Churchto an unbeatable army of hereticsand infidels was the most terriblething that could have happened,an unimaginable disaster. ‘Next, the forces of darkness willcome against Rome, and if Romefalls it will be the end of days –the end of the world. Our task isto defend Christendom, to defendRome – in this world, and in theunseen world beyond.’ ‘The unseen world?’ ‘It is all around us,’ the mansaid flatly. ‘I see it, perhaps asclearly as you see numbers. And
  • 31. every year, every day, it pressesmore closely. People come to mewith stories of showers of blood,of a dog that can smell out theplague, of witchcraft, of lights inthe sky, of water that is wine. Theend of days approaches and thereare hundreds of manifestations ofgood and evil, miracles andheresies. A young man like youcan perhaps tell me which ofthese are true, and which arefalse, which are the work of Godand which of the Devil.’ He rosefrom his great wooden chair andpushed a fresh sheet of paperacross the table to Luca. ‘Seethis?’ Luca looked at the marks on thepaper. It was the writing ofheretics, the Moors’ way ofnumbering. Luca had been taughtas a child that one stroke of the
  • 32. pen meant one: I, two strokesmeant two: II, and so on. Butthese were strange roundedshapes. He had seen them before,but the merchants in his villageand the almoner at the monasterystubbornly refused to use them,clinging to the old ways. ‘This means one: 1, this two: 2,and this three: 3,’ the man said,the black feather tip of his quillpointing to the marks. ‘Put the 1here, in this column, it means one,but put it here and this blankbeside it and it means ten, or putit here and two blanks beside it, itmeans one hundred.’ Luca gaped. ‘The position of thenumber shows its value?’ ‘Just so.’ The man pointed theplume of the black feather to theshape of the blank, like anelongated O, which filled the
  • 33. columns. His arm stretched fromthe sleeve of his robe and Lucalooked from the O to the whiteskin of the man’s inner wrist.Tattooed on the inside of his arm,so that it almost appearedengraved on skin, Luca could justmake out the head and twistedtail of a dragon, a design in redink of a dragon coiled around onitself. ‘This is not just a blank, it is notjust an O, it is what they call azero. Look at the position of it –that means something. What if itmeant something of itself?’ ‘Does it mean a space?’ Lucasaid, looking at the paper again.‘Does it mean: nothing?’ ‘It is a number like any other,’the man told him. ‘They havemade a number from nothing. Sothey can calculate to nothing, and
  • 34. beyond.’ ‘Beyond? Beyond nothing?’ The man pointed to anothernumber: –10. ‘That is beyondnothing. That is ten places beyondnothing, that is the numbering ofabsence,’ he said. Luca, with his mind whirling,reached out for the paper. But theman quietly drew it back towardshim and placed his broad handover it, keeping it from Luca like aprize he would have to win. Thesleeve fell down over his wristagain, hiding the tattoo. ‘Youknow how they got to that sign,the number zero?’ he asked. Luca shook his head. ‘Who gotto it?’ ‘Arabs, Moors, Ottomans, callthem what you will. Mussulmen,Muslim-men, infidels, ourenemies, our new conquerors. Do
  • 35. you know how they got that sign?’ ‘No.’ ‘It is the shape left by a counterin the sand when you have takenthe counter away. It is the symbolfor nothing, it looks like a nothing.It is what it symbolises. That ishow they think. That is what wehave to learn from them.’ ‘I don’t understand. What do wehave to learn?’ ‘To look, and look, and look.That is what they do. They look ateverything, they think abouteverything, that is why they haveseen stars in the sky that we havenever seen. That is why theymake physic from plants that wehave never noticed.’ He pulled hishood closer, so that his face wascompletely shadowed. ‘That iswhy they will defeat us unless welearn to see like they see, to think
  • 36. like they think, to count like theycount. Perhaps a young man likeyou can learn their language too.’ Luca could not take his eyesfrom the paper where the manhad marked out ten spaces ofcounting, down to zero and thenbeyond. ‘So, what do you think?’ theInquisitor asked him. ‘Do you thinkten nothings are beings of theunseen world? Like ten invisiblethings? Ten ghosts? Ten angels?’ ‘If you could calculate beyondnothing,’ Luca started, ‘you couldshow what you had lost. Saysomeone was a merchant, and hisdebt in one country, or on onevoyage, was greater than hisfortune, you could show exactlyhow much his debt was. You couldshow his loss. You could showhow much less than nothing he
  • 37. had, how much he would have toearn before he had somethingagain.’ ‘Yes,’ the man said. ‘With zeroyou can measure what is notthere. The Ottomans tookConstantinople and our empire inthe east not only because theyhad the strongest armies and thebest commanders, but becausethey had a weapon that we didnot have: a cannon so massivethat it took sixty oxen to pull itinto place. They have knowledgeof things that we don’tunderstand. The reason that Isent for you, the reason that youwere expelled from yourmonastery but not punished therefor disobedience or tortured forheresy, is that I want you to learnthese mysteries; I want you toexplore them, so that we can
  • 38. know them, and arm ourselvesagainst them.’ ‘Is zero one of the things I muststudy? Will I go to the Ottomansand learn from them? Will I learnabout their studies?’ The man laughed and pushedthe piece of paper with the Arabicnumerals towards the novicepriest, holding it with one fingeron the page. ‘I will let you havethis,’ he promised. ‘It can be yourreward when you have worked tomy satisfaction and set out onyour mission. And yes, perhapsyou will go to the infidel and liveamong them and learn their ways.But for now, you have to swearobedience to me and to our Order.I will send you out to be my earsand eyes. I will send you to huntfor mysteries, to find knowledge. Iwill send you to map fears, to
  • 39. seek darkness in all its shapes andforms. I will send you out tounderstand things, to be part ofour Order that seeks tounderstand everything.’ He could see Luca’s face lightup at the thought of a life devotedto inquiry. But then the youngman hesitated. ‘I won’t know whatto do,’ Luca confessed. ‘I wouldn’tknow where to begin. Iunderstand nothing! How will Iknow where to go or what to do?’ ‘I am going to send you to betrained. I will send you to studywith masters. They will teach youthe law, and what powers youhave to convene a court or aninquiry. You will learn what to lookfor and how to question someone.You will understand whensomeone must be released toearthly powers – the mayors of
  • 40. towns or the lords of the manor;or when they can be punished bythe Church. You will learn when toforgive and when to punish. Whenyou are ready, when you havebeen trained, I will send you onyour first mission.’ Luca nodded. ‘You will be trained for somemonths and then I shall send youout into the world with my orders,’the man said. ‘You will go where Icommand and study what you findthere. You will report to me. Youmay judge and punish where youfind wrong-doing. You mayexorcise devils and unclean spirits.You may learn. You may questioneverything, all the time. But youwill serve God and me, as I tellyou. You will be obedient to meand to the Order. And you willwalk in the unseen world and look
  • 41. at unseen things, and questionthem.’ There was a silence. ‘You cango,’ the man said, as if he hadgiven the simplest of instructions.Luca started from his silentattention and went to the door. Ashis hand was on the bronzehandle the man said: ‘One thingmore . . .’ Luca turned. ‘They said you were achangeling, didn’t they?’ Theaccusation dropped into the roomlike a sudden shower of ice. ‘Thepeople of the village? When theygossiped about you being born, sohandsome and so clever, to awoman who had been barren allher life, to a man who couldneither read nor write. They saidyou were a changeling, left on herdoorstep by the faeries, didn’t
  • 42. they?’ There was a cold silence. Luca’sstern young face revealed nothing.‘I have never answered such aquestion, and I hope that I neverdo. I don’t know what they saidabout us,’ he said harshly. ‘Theywere ignorant fearful countrypeople. My mother said to pay noattention to the things they said.She said that she was my motherand that she loved me above allelse. That’s all that mattered, notstories about faerie children.’ The man laughed shortly andwaved Luca to go, and watched asthe door closed beind him.‘Perhaps I am sending out achangeling to map fear itself,’ hesaid to himself, as he tidied thepapers together and pushed backhis chair. ‘What a joke for theworlds seen and unseen! A faerie
  • 43. child in the Order. A faerie child tomap fear.’
  • 44. THE CASTLE OF LUCRETILI, JUNE 1453At about the time that Luca wasbeing questioned, a young womanwas seated in a rich chair in thechapel of her family home, theCastle of Lucretili, about twentymiles north-east of Rome, her
  • 45. dark blue eyes fixed on the richcrucifix, her fair hair twisted in acareless plait under a black veil,her face strained and pale. Acandle in a rose crystal bowlflickered on the altar as the priestmoved in the shadows. She knelt,her hands clasped tightlytogether, praying fervently for herfather, who was fighting for his lifein his bedchamber, refusing to seeher. The door at the back of thechapel opened and her brothercame in quietly, saw her bowedhead and went to kneel besideher. She looked sideways at him,a handsome young man, dark-haired, dark-browed, his facestern with grief. ‘He’s gone,Isolde, he’s gone. May he rest inpeace.’ Her white face crumpled and
  • 46. she put her hands over her eyes.‘He didn’t ask for me? Not even atthe end?’ ‘He didn’t want you to see himin pain. He wanted you toremember him as he had been,strong and healthy. But his lastwords were to send you hisblessing, and his last thoughtswere of your future.’ She shook her head. ‘I can’tbelieve he would not give me hisblessing.’ Giorgio turned from her andspoke to the priest, who hurried atonce to the back of the chapel.Isolde heard the big bell start totoll; everyone would know thatthe great crusader, the Lord ofLucretili, was dead. ‘I must pray for him,’ she saidquietly. ‘You’ll bring his bodyhere?’
  • 47. He nodded. ‘I will share the vigil tonight,’she decided. ‘I will sit beside himnow that he is dead though hedidn’t allow it while he lived.’ Shepaused. ‘He didn’t leave me aletter? Nothing?’ ‘His will,’ her brother said softly.‘He planned for you. At the veryend of his life he was thinking ofyou.’ She nodded, her dark blue eyesfilling with tears, then she claspedher hands together, and prayedfor her father’s soul.Isolde spent the first long night ofher father’s death in a silent vigilbeside his coffin, which lay in thefamily chapel. Four of his men-at-
  • 48. arms stood, one at each point ofthe compass, their heads bowedover their broadswords, the lightfrom the tall wax candlesglittering on the holy water thathad been sprinkled on the coffinlid. Isolde, dressed in white, kneltbefore the coffin all night longuntil dawn when the priest cameto say Prime, the first office ofprayers of the day. Only then didshe rise up and let her ladies-in-waiting help her to her room tosleep, until a message from herbrother told her that she must getup and show herself, it was timefor dinner and the householdwould want to see their lady. She did not hesitate. She hadbeen raised to do her duty by thegreat household and she had asense of obligation to the peoplewho lived on the lands of Lucretili.
  • 49. Her father, she knew, had left thecastle and the lands to her; thesepeople were in her charge. Theywould want to see her at the headof the table, they would want tosee her enter the great hall. Evenif her eyes were red from cryingover the loss of a very belovedfather, they would expect her todine with them. Her father himselfwould have expected it. Shewould not fail them or him.There was a sudden hush as sheentered the great hall where theservants were sitting at trestletables, talking quietly, waiting fordinner to be served. More thantwo hundred men-at-arms,servants and grooms filled the
  • 50. hall, where the smoke from thecentral fire coiled up to thedarkened beams of the highceiling. As soon as the men saw Isoldefollowed by the three women ofher household, they rose to theirfeet and pulled their hats fromtheir heads, and bowed low tohonour the daughter of the lateLord of Lucretili, and the heiressto the castle. Isolde was wearing the deepblue of mourning: a high conicalhat draped in indigo lace hidingher fair hair, a priceless belt ofArabic gold worn tightly at thehigh waist of her gown, the keysto the castle on a gold chain ather side. Behind her came herwomen companions, firstly Ishraq,her childhood friend, wearingMoorish dress, a long tunic over
  • 51. loose pantaloons with a long veilover her head held lightly acrossher face so that only her dark eyeswere visible as she looked aroundthe hall. Two other women followedbehind her and as the householdwhispered their blessings onIsolde, the women took theirseats at the ladies’ table to theside of the raised dais. Isoldewent up the shallow stairs to thegreat table, and recoiled at thesight of her brother in the woodenchair, as grand as a throne, thathad been their father’s seat. Sheknew that she should haveanticipated he would be there,just as he knew that she wouldinherit this castle and would takethe great chair as soon as the willwas read. But she was dull withgrief, and she had not thought
  • 52. that from now on she wouldalways see her brother where herfather ought to be. She was sonew to grief that she had not yetfully realised that she would neversee her father again. Giorgio smiled blandly at her,and gestured that she should takeher seat at his right hand, whereshe used to sit beside her father. ‘And you will remember PrinceRoberto.’ Giorgio indicated afleshy man with a round sweatingface on his left, who rose andcame around the table to bow toher. Isolde gave her hand to theprince and looked questioningly ather brother. ‘He has come tosympathise with us for our loss.’ The prince kissed her hand andIsolde tried not to flinch from thedamp touch of his lips. He lookedat her as if he wanted to whisper
  • 53. something, as if they might sharea secret. Isolde took back herhand, and bent towards herbrother’s ear. ‘I am surprised youhave a guest at dinner when myfather died only yesterday.’ ‘It was good of him to come atonce,’ Giorgio said, beckoning theservers who came down the hall,their trays held at shoulder heightloaded with game, meat, and fishdishes, great loaves of bread andflagons of wine and jugs of ale. The castle priest sang grace andthen the servers banged down thetrays of food, the men drew theirdaggers from their belts and theirboots to carve their portions ofmeat, and heaped slices of thickbrown bread with poached fish,and stewed venison. It was hard for Isolde to eatdinner in the great hall as if
  • 54. nothing had changed, when herdead father lay in his vigil,guarded in the chapel by his men-at-arms, and would be buried thenext day. She found that tearskept blurring the sight of theservants coming in, carrying morefood for each table, banging downjugs of small ale, and bringing thebest dishes and flagons of bestred wine to the top table whereGiorgio and his guest the princepicked the best and sent the restdown the hall to those men whohad served them well during theday. The prince and her brotherate a good dinner and called formore wine. Isolde picked at herfood and glanced down to thewomen’s table where Ishraq mether gaze with silent sympathy. When they had finished, and thesugared fruits and marchpane had
  • 55. been offered to the top table, andtaken away, Giorgio touched herhand. ‘Don’t go to your rooms justyet,’ he said. ‘I want to talk toyou.’ Isolde nodded to dismiss Ishraqand her ladies from their diningtable and send them back to theladies’ rooms, then she wentthrough the little door behind thedais to the private room wherethe Lucretili family sat afterdinner. A fire was burning againstthe wall and there were threechairs drawn up around it. Aflagon of wine was set ready forthe men, a glass of small ale forIsolde. As she took her seat thetwo men came in together. ‘I want to talk to you about ourfather’s will,’ Giorgio said, oncethey were seated. Isolde glanced towards Prince
  • 56. Roberto. ‘Roberto is concerned in this,’Giorgio explained. ‘When Fatherwas dying he said that hisgreatest hope was to know thatyou would be safe and happy. Heloved you very dearly.’ Isolde pressed her fingers to hercold lips and blinked the tearsfrom her eyes. ‘I know,’ her brother said gently.‘I know you are grieving. But youhave to know that Father madeplans for you and gave to me thesacred trust of carrying them out.’ ‘Why didn’t he tell me sohimself?’ she asked. ‘Why wouldhe not talk to me? We alwaystalked of everything together. Iknow what he planned for me; hesaid if I chose not to marry then Iwas to live here, I would inheritthis castle and you would have his
  • 57. castle and lands in France. Weagreed this. We all three agreedthis.’ ‘We agreed it when he waswell,’ Giorgio said patiently. ‘Butwhen he became sick and fearful,he changed his mind. And then hecould not bear for you to see himso very ill and in so much pain.When he thought about you then,with the very jaws of deathopening before him, he thoughtbetter of his first plan. He wantedto be certain that you would besafe. Then, he planned well foryou – he suggested that youmarry Prince Roberto here, andagreed that we should take athousand crowns from thetreasury as your dowry.’ It was a tiny payment for awoman who had been raised tothink of herself as heiress to this
  • 58. castle, the fertile pastures, thethick woods, the high mountains.Isolde gaped at him. ‘Why solittle?’ ‘Because the prince here hasdone us the honour of indicatingthat he will accept you just as youare – with no more than athousand crowns in your pocket.’ ‘And you shall keep it all,’ theman assured her, pressing herhand as it rested on the arm ofher chair. ‘You shall have it tospend on whatever you want.Pretty things for a pretty princess.’ Isolde looked at her brother, herdark blue eyes narrowing as sheunderstood what this meant. ‘Adowry as small as this will meanthat no-one else will offer for me,’she said. ‘You know that. And yetyou did not ask for more? You didnot warn Father that this would
  • 59. leave me without any prospects atall? And Father? Did he want toforce me to marry the prince?’ The prince put his hand on hisfleshy chest and cast his eyesmodestly down. ‘Most ladies wouldnot require forcing,’ he pointedout. ‘I know of no better husbandthat you might have,’ Giorgio saidsmoothly. His friend smiled andnodded at her. ‘And Fatherthought so too. We agreed thisdowry with Prince Roberto and hewas so pleased to marry you thathe did not specify that you shouldbring a greater fortune than this.There is no need to accuseanyone of failing to guard yourinterests. What could be better foryou than marriage to a familyfriend, a prince, and a wealthyman?’
  • 60. It took her only a moment todecide. ‘I cannot think ofmarriage,’ Isolde said flatly.‘Forgive me, Prince Roberto. But itis too soon after my father’sdeath. I cannot bear even to thinkof it, let alone talk of it.’ ‘We have to talk of it,’ Giorgioinsisted. ‘The terms of our father’swill are that we have to get yousettled. He would not allow anydelay. Either immediate marriageto my friend here, or . . .’ Hepaused. ‘Or what?’ Isolde asked,suddenly afraid. ‘The abbey,’ he said simply.‘Father said that if you would notmarry, I was to appoint you asabbess and that you should gothere to live.’ ‘Never!’ Isolde exclaimed. ‘Myfather would never have done this
  • 61. to me!’ Giorgio nodded. ‘I too wassurprised, but he said that it wasthe future he had planned for youall along. That was why he did notfill the post when the last abbessdied. He was thinking even then,a year ago, that you must be keptsafe. You can’t be exposed to thedangers of the world, left herealone at Lucretili. If you don’twant to marry, you must be keptsafe in the abbey.’ Prince Roberto smiled slyly ather. ‘A nun or a princess,’ hesuggested. ‘I would think youwould find it easy to choose.’ Isolde jumped to her feet. ‘Icannot believe Father planned thisfor me,’ she said. ‘He neversuggested anything like this. Hewas clear he would divide thelands between us. He knew how
  • 62. much I love it here; how I lovethese lands and know thesepeople. He said he would will thiscastle and the lands to me, andgive you our lands in France.’ Giorgio shook his head as if ingentle regret. ‘No, he changed hismind. As the oldest child, the onlyson, the only true heir, I will haveeverything, both in France andhere, and you, as a woman, willhave to leave.’ ‘Giorgio, my brother, you cannotsend me from my home?’ He spread his hands. ‘There isnothing I can do. It is our father’slast wish and I have it in writing,signed by him. You will eithermarry – and no-one will have youbut Prince Roberto – or you will goto the abbey. It was good of himto give you this choice. Manyfathers would simply have left
  • 63. orders.’ ‘Excuse me,’ Isolde said, hervoice shaking as she fought tocontrol her anger, ‘I shall leaveyou and go to my rooms and thinkabout this.’ ‘Don’t take too long!’ PrinceRoberto said with an intimatesmile. ‘I won’t wait too long.’ ‘I shall give you my answertomorrow.’ She paused in thedoorway, and looked back at herbrother. ‘May I see my father’sletter?’ Giorgio nodded and drew it frominside his jacket. ‘You can keepthis. It is a copy. I have the otherin safe-keeping; there is no doubtas to his wishes. You will have toconsider not whether you willobey him, but only how you obeyhim. He knew that you wouldobey him.’
  • 64. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘I am hisdaughter. Of course I will obeyhim.’ She went from the roomwithout looking at the prince,though he rose to his feet andmade her a flourishing bow, andthen winked at Giorgio as if hethought the matter settled.Isolde woke in the night to hear aquiet tap on her door. Her pillowwas damp beneath her cheek; shehad been crying in her sleep. For amoment she wondered why shefelt such a pain, as if she wereheartbroken – and then sheremembered the coffin in thechapel and the silent knightskeeping watch. She crossedherself: ‘God bless him, and save
  • 65. his soul,’ she whispered. ‘Godcomfort me in this sorrow. I don’tknow that I can bear it.’ The little tap came again, andshe put back the richlyembroidered covers of her bedand went to the door, the key inher hand. ‘Who is it?’ ‘It is Prince Roberto. I have tospeak with you.’ ‘I can’t open the door, I willspeak with you tomorrow.’ ‘I need to speak to you tonight.It is about the will, your father’swishes.’ She hesitated. ‘Tomorrow . . .’ ‘I think I can see a way out foryou. I understand how you feel, Ithink I can help.’ ‘What way out?’ ‘I can’t shout it through thedoor. Just open the door a crackso that I can whisper.’
  • 66. ‘Just a crack,’ she said, andturned the key, keeping her footpressed against the bottom of thedoor to ensure that it opened onlya little. As soon as he heard the keyturn, the prince banged the dooropen with such force that it hitIsolde’s head and sent her reelingback into the room. He slammedthe door behind him and turnedthe key, locking them in together. ‘You thought you would rejectme?’ he demanded furiously, asshe scrambled to her feet. ‘Youthought you – practically penniless– would reject me? You thought Iwould beg to speak to youthrough a closed door?’ ‘How dare you force your way inhere?’ Isolde demanded, white-faced and furious. ‘My brotherwould kill you—’
  • 67. ‘Your brother allowed it,’ helaughed. ‘Your brother approvesme as your husband. He himselfsuggested that I come to you.Now get on the bed.’ ‘My brother?’ She could feel hershock turning into horror as sherealised that she had beenbetrayed by her own brother, andthat now this stranger was comingtowards her, his fat face creasedin a confident smile. ‘He said I might as well takeyou now as later,’ he said. ‘Youcan fight me if you like. It makesno difference to me. I like a fight.I like a woman of spirit, they aremore obedient in the end.’ ‘You are mad,’ she said withcertainty. ‘Whatever you like. But Iconsider you my betrothed wife,and we are going to consummate
  • 68. our betrothal right now, so youdon’t make any mistaketomorrow.’ ‘You’re drunk,’ she said,smelling the sour stink of wine onhis breath. ‘Yes, thank God, and you canget used to that too.’ He came towards her, shrugginghis jacket off his fleshy shoulders.She shrank back until she felt thetall wooden pole of the four-posterbed behind her, blocking herretreat. She put her hands behindher back so that he could not grabthem, and felt the velvet of thecounterpane, and beneath it thehandle of the brass warming panfilled with hot embers that hadbeen pushed between the coldsheets. ‘Please,’ she said. ‘This isridiculous. It is an offence against
  • 69. hospitality. You are our guest, myfather’s body lies in the chapel. Iam without defence, and you aredrunk on our wine. Please go toyour room and I will speak kindlyto you in the morning.’ ‘No,’ he leered. ‘I don’t think so.I think I shall spend the night herein your bed and I am very sureyou will speak kindly to me in themorning.’ Behind her back, Isolde’s fingersclosed on the handle of thewarming pan. As Roberto pausedto untie the laces on the front ofhis breeches, she got a sickeningglimpse of grey linen poking out.He reached for her arm. ‘Thisneed not hurt you,’ he said. ‘Youmight even enjoy it . . .’ With a great swing she broughtthe warming pan round to claphim on the side of his head. Red-
  • 70. hot embers and ash dashedagainst his face and tumbled tothe floor. He let out of a howl ofpain as she drew back and hit himonce again, hard, and he droppeddown like a fat stunned ox beforethe slaughter. She picked up a jug and flungwater over the coals smoulderingon the rug beneath him and then,cautiously, she kicked him gentlywith her slippered foot. He did notstir, he was knocked out cold.Isolde went to an inner room andunlocked the door, whispering‘Ishraq!’ When the girl came,rubbing sleep from her eyes,Isolde showed her the mancrumpled on the ground. ‘Is he dead?’ the girl askedcalmly. ‘No. I don’t think so. Help meget him out of here.’
  • 71. The two young women pulledthe rug and the limp body ofPrince Roberto slid along the floor,leaving a slimy trail of water andashes. They got him into thegallery outside her room andpaused. ‘I take it your brother allowedhim to come to you?’ Isolde nodded, and Ishraqturned her head and spatcontemptuously on the prince’swhite face. ‘Why ever did youopen the door?’ ‘I thought he would help me. Hesaid he had an idea to help methen he pushed his way in.’ ‘Did he hurt you?’ The girl’s darkeyes scanned her friend’s face.‘Your forehead?’ ‘He knocked me when hepushed the door.’ ‘Was he going to rape you?’
  • 72. Isolde nodded. ‘Then let’s leave him here,’Ishraq decided. ‘He can come toon the floor like the dog that he is,and crawl to his room. If he’s stillhere in the morning then theservants can find him and makehim a laughing-stock.’ She bentdown and felt for his pulses at histhroat, his wrists and under thebulging waistband of his breeches.‘He’ll live,’ she said certainly.‘Though he wouldn’t be missed ifwe quietly cut his throat.’ ‘Of course we can’t do that,’Isolde said shakily. They left him there, laid out likea beached whale on his back, withhis breeches still unlaced. ‘Wait here,’ Ishraq said andwent back to her room. She returned swiftly, with asmall box in her hand. Delicately,
  • 73. using the tips of her fingers andscowling with distaste, she pulledat the prince’s breeches so thatthey were gaping wide open. Shelifted his linen shirt so that hislimp nakedness was clearlyvisible. She took the lid from thebox and shook the spice onto hisbare skin. ‘What are you doing?’ Isoldewhispered. ‘It’s a dried pepper, very strong.He is going to itch like he has thepox, and his skin is going to blisterlike he has a rash. He is going toregret this night’s work very much.He is going to be itching andscratching and bleeding for amonth, and he won’t troubleanother woman for a while.’ Isolde laughed and put out herhand, as her father would havedone, and the two young women
  • 74. clasped forearms, hand to elbow,like knights. Ishraq grinned, andthey turned and went back intothe bedroom, closing the door onthe humbled prince and locking itfirmly against him.In the morning, when Isolde wentto chapel, her father’s coffin wasclosed and ready for burial in thedeep family vault – and the princewas gone. ‘He has withdrawn his offer foryour hand,’ her brother said coldlyas he took his place, kneelingbeside her on the chancel steps. ‘Itake it that something passedbetween the two of you?’ ‘He’s a villain,’ Isolde saidsimply. ‘And if you sent him to my
  • 75. door, as he claimed, then you area traitor to me.’ He bowed his head. ‘Of course Idid no such thing. I am sorry, I gotdrunk like a fool and said that hecould plead his case with you.Why ever did you open your door?’ ‘Because I believed your friendwas an honourable man, as youdid.’ ‘You were very wrong to unlockyour door,’ her brother reproachedher. ‘Opening your bedroom doorto a man, to a drunk man! Youdon’t know how to take care ofyourself. Father was right, wehave to place you somewheresafe.’ ‘I was safe! I was in my ownroom, in my own castle, speakingto my brother’s friend. I should nothave been at risk,’ she saidangrily. ‘You should not have
  • 76. brought such a man to our dinnertable. Father should never havebeen advised that he would makea good husband for me.’ She rose to her feet and wentdown the aisle, her brotherfollowing after her. ‘Well anyway,what did you say to upset him?’ Isolde hid a smile at thethought of the warming pancrashing against the prince’s fathead. ‘I made my feelings clear.And I will never meet with himagain.’ ‘Well, that’s easily achieved,’Giorgio said bluntly. ‘Because youwill never be able to meet withany man again. If you will notmarry Prince Roberto, then youwill have to go to the abbey. Ourfather’s will leaves you with noother choice.’ Isolde paused as his words sank
  • 77. in, and put a hesitant hand on hisarm, wondering how she couldpersuade him to let her go free. ‘There’s no need to look likethat,’ he said roughly. ‘The termsof the will are clear, I told you lastnight. It was the prince or thenunnery. Now it is just thenunnery.’ ‘I will go on a pilgrimage,’ sheoffered. ‘Away from here.’ ‘You will not. How would yousurvive for one moment? You can’tkeep yourself safe even at home.’ ‘I will go and stay with somefriends of Father’s – anyone. Icould go to my godfather’s son,the Count of Wallachia, I could goto the Duke of Bradour . . .’ His face was grim. ‘You can’t.You know you can’t. You have todo as Father commanded you. Ihave no choice, Isolde. God knows
  • 78. I would do anything for you, buthis will is clear, and I have to obeymy father – just as you do.’ ‘Brother – don’t force me to dothis.’ He turned to the arched wall ofthe chapel doorway, and put hisforehead to the cold stone, as ifshe was making his head ache.‘Sister, I can do nothing. PrinceRoberto was your only chance toescape the abbey. It is our father’swill. I am sworn on his sword, onhis own broadsword, to see thathis will is done. My sister – I ampowerless, as you are.’ ‘He promised he would leave hisbroadsword to me.’ ‘It is mine now. As is everythingelse.’ Gently she put her hand on hisshoulder. ‘If I take an oath ofcelibacy, may I not stay here with
  • 79. you? I will marry no-one. Thecastle is yours, I see that. In theend he did what every man doesand favoured his son over hisdaughter. In the end he did whatall great men do and excluded awoman from wealth and power.But if I will live here, poor andpowerless, never seeing a man,obedient to you, can I not stayhere?’ He shook his head. ‘It is not mywill, but his. And it is – as youadmit – the way of the world. Hebrought you up almost as if youhad been born a boy, with toomuch wealth and freedom. Butnow you must live the life of anoblewoman. You should be gladat least that the abbey is nearby,and so you don’t have to go farfrom these lands that I know youlove. You’ve not been sent into
  • 80. exile – he could have ordered thatyou go anywhere. But instead youwill be in our own property: theabbey. I will come and see younow and then. I will bring younews. Perhaps later you will beable to ride out with me.’ ‘Can Ishraq come with me?’ ‘You can take Ishraq, you cantake all your ladies if you wish,and if they are willing to go. Butthey are expecting you at theabbey tomorrow. You will have togo, Isolde. You will have to takeyour vows as a nun and becometheir abbess. You have no choice.’ He turned back to her and sawshe was trembling like a youngmare will tremble when she isbeing forced into harness for thefirst time. ‘It is like beingimprisoned,’ she whispered. ‘And Ihave done nothing wrong.’
  • 81. He had tears in his own eyes. ‘Itis like losing a sister,’ he said. ‘Iam burying a father and losing asister. I don’t know how it will bewithout you here.’
  • 82. THE ABBEY OFLUCRETILI, OCTOBER 1453A few months later, Luca was onthe road from Rome, riding east,wearing a plain working robe andcape of ruddy brown, and newlyequipped with a horse of his own. He was accompanied by his
  • 83. servant Freize, a broad-shouldered, square-faced youth,just out of his teens, who hadplucked up his courage when Lucaleft their monastery, andvolunteered to work for the youngman, and follow him wherever thequest might take him. The abbothad been doubtful, but Freize hadconvinced him that his skills as akitchen lad were so poor, and hislove of adventure so strong, thathe would serve God better byfollowing a remarkable master ona secret quest ordained by thePope himself, than by burning thebacon for the long-sufferingmonks. The abbot, secretly glad tolose the challenging young novicepriest, thought the loss of anaccident-prone spit lad was asmall price to pay. Freize rode a strong cob and led
  • 84. a donkey laden with theirbelongings. At the rear of the littleprocession was a surprise additionto their partnership: a clerk,Brother Peter, who had beenordered to travel with them at thelast moment, to keep a record oftheir work. ‘A spy,’ Freize muttered out ofthe side of his mouth to his newmaster. ‘A spy if ever I saw one.Pale-faced, soft hands, trustingbrown eyes: the shaved head of amonk and yet the clothes of agentleman. A spy without a doubt. ‘Is he spying on me? No, for Idon’t do anything and knownothing. Who is he spying on,then? Must be the young master,my little sparrow. For there is no-one else but the horses andthey’re not heretics, nor pagans.They are the only honest beasts
  • 85. here.’ ‘He is here to serve as my clerk,’Luca replied irritably. ‘And I haveto have him whether I need aclerk or no. So hold your tongue.’ ‘Do I need a clerk?’ Freize askedhimself as he reined in his horse.‘No. For I do nothing and knownothing and, if I did, I wouldn’twrite it down – not trusting wordson a page. Also, not being able toread or write would likely preventme.’ ‘Fool,’ the clerk Peter said as herode by. ‘“Fool,” he says,’ Freizeremarked to his horse’s ears andto the gently climbing road beforethem. ‘Easy to say: hard to prove.And anyway, I have been calledworse.’ They had been riding all day ona track little more than a narrow
  • 86. path for goats, which woundupwards out of the fertile valley,alongside little terraced slopesgrowing olives and vines, and thenhigher into the woodland wherethe huge beech trees were turninggold and bronze. At sunset, whenthe arching skies above themwent rosy pink, the clerk drew apaper from the inner pocket of hisjacket. ‘I was ordered to give youthis at sunset,’ he said. ‘Forgiveme if it is bad news. I don’t knowwhat it says.’ ‘Who gave it you?’ Luca asked.The seal on the back of the foldedletter was shiny and smooth,unmarked with any crest. ‘The lord who hired me, thesame lord who commands you,’Peter said. ‘This is how yourorders will come. He tells me aday and a time, or sometimes a
  • 87. destination, and I give you yourorders then and there.’ ‘Got them tucked away in yourpocket all the time?’ Freizeinquired. Grandly, the clerk nodded. ‘Could always turn him upsidedown and shake him,’ Freizeremarked quietly to his master. ‘We’ll do this as we are orderedto do it,’ Luca replied, looping thereins of his horse casually aroundhis shoulder to leave his handsfree to break the seal to open thefolded paper. ‘It’s an instruction togo to the abbey of Lucretili,’ hesaid. ‘The abbey is set betweentwo houses, a nunnery and amonastery. I am to investigate thenunnery. They are expecting us.’He folded the letter and gave itback to Peter. ‘Does it say how to find them?’
  • 88. Freize asked gloomily. ‘Forotherwise it’s bed under the treesand nothing but cold bread forsupper. Beechnuts, I suppose. Allyou could eat of beechnuts. Youcould go mad with gluttony onthem. I suppose I might get luckyand find us a mushroom.’ ‘The road is just up ahead,’Peter interrupted. ‘The abbey isnear to the castle. I should thinkwe can claim hospitality at eithermonastery or nunnery.’ ‘We’ll go to the convent,’ Lucaruled. ‘It says that they areexpecting us.’It did not look as if the conventwas expecting anyone. It wasgrowing dark, but there were no
  • 89. warm welcoming lights showingand no open doors. The shutterswere closed at all the windows inthe outer wall, and only narrowbeams of flickering candlelightshone through the slats. In thedarkness they could not tell howbig it was; they just had a senseof great walls marching off eitherside of the wide-arched entrancegateway. A dim horn lantern washung by the small door set in thegreat wooden gate, throwing athin yellow light downward, andwhen Freize dismounted andhammered on the wooden gatewith the handle of his dagger theycould hear someone insideprotesting at the noise and thenopening a little spy hole in thedoor, to peer out at them. ‘I am Luca Vero, with my twoservants,’ Luca shouted. ‘I am
  • 90. expected. Let us in.’ The spy hole slammed shut,then they could hear the slowunbolting of the gate and thelifting of wooden bars and, finally,one side of the gate creakedreluctantly open. Freize led hishorse and the donkey, Luca andPeter rode into the cobbled yardas a sturdy woman-servantpushed the gate shut behindthem. The men dismounted andlooked around as a wizened oldlady in a habit of grey wool, with atabard of grey tied at her waist bya plain rope, held up the torch shewas carrying, to inspect the threeof them. ‘Are you the man they sent tomake inquiry? For if you are not,and it is hospitality that you want,you had better go on to themonastery, our brother house,’
  • 91. she said to Peter, looking at himand his fine horse. ‘This house isin troubled times, we don’t wantguests.’ ‘No, I am to write the report. Iam the clerk to the inquiry. This isLuca Vero, he is here to inquire.’ ‘A boy!’ she exclaimedscornfully. ‘A beardless boy?’ Luca flushed in irritation, thenswung his leg over the neck of hishorse, and jumped down to theground, throwing the reins toFreize. ‘It doesn’t matter howmany years I have, or if I have abeard or not. I am appointed tomake inquiry here, and I will do sotomorrow. In the meantime weare tired and hungry and youshould show me to the refectoryand to the guest rooms. Pleaseinform the Lady Abbess that I amhere and will see her after Prime
  • 92. tomorrow.’ ‘Rich in nothing,’ the old womanremarked, holding up her torch totake another look at Luca’shandsome young face, flushedunder his dark fringe, his hazeleyes bright with anger. ‘Rich in nothing, is it?’ Freizequestioned the horse as he ledhim to the stables ahead. ‘A virginso old that she is like a pickledwalnut and she calls the little lorda beardless boy? And him a geniusand perhaps a changeling?’ ‘You, take the horses to thestables and the lay sister therewill take you to the kitchen,’ shesnapped with sudden energy atFreize. ‘You can eat and sleep inthe barn. You—’ She took in themeasure of Peter the clerk andjudged him superior to Freize butstill wanting. ‘You can dine in the
  • 93. kitchen gallery. You’ll find itthrough that doorway. They’llshow you where to sleep in theguesthouse. You—’ She turned toLuca. ‘You, the inquirer, I willshow to the refectory and to yourown bedroom. They said you werea priest?’ ‘I have not yet said my vows,’he said. ‘I am in the service of theChurch, but I am not ordained.’ ‘Too handsome by far for thepriesthood, and with his tonsuregrown out already,’ she said toherself. To Luca she said: ‘You cansleep in the rooms for the visitingpriest, anyway. And in themorning I will tell my Lady Abbessthat you are here.’ She was leading the way to therefectory when a lady camethrough the archway from theinner cloister. Her habit was made
  • 94. of the softest bleached wool, thewimple on her head pushed backto show a pale lovely face withsmiling grey eyes. The girdle ather waist was of the finest leatherand she had soft leather slippers,not the rough wooden pattensthat working women wore to keeptheir shoes out of the mud. ‘I came to greet the inquirer,’she said, holding up the set ofwax candles in her hand. Luca stepped forwards. ‘I amthe inquirer,’ he said. She smiled, taking in his height,his good looks and his youth inone swift gaze. ‘Let me take youto your dinner, you must beweary. Sister Anna here will seethat your horses are stabled andyour men comfortable.’ He bowed and she turnedahead of him, leaving him to
  • 95. follow her through the stonearchway, along a flagged gallerythat opened into the archingrefectory room. At the far end,near the fire that was banked infor the night, a place had beenlaid for one person; there waswine in the glass, bread on theplate, a knife and spoon eitherside of a bowl. Luca sighed withpleasure and sat down in the chairas a maidservant came in with aewer and bowl to wash his hands,good linen to dry them, andbehind her came a kitchen maidwith a bowl of stewed chicken andvegetables. ‘You have everything that youneed?’ the lady asked. ‘Thank you,’ he said awkwardly.He was uncomfortable in herpresence; he had not spoken to awoman other than his mother
  • 96. since he had been sworn into themonastery at the age of eleven.‘And you are?’ She smiled at him and herealised in the glow of her smilethat she was beautiful. ‘I amSister Ursula, the Lady Almoner,responsible for the managementof the abbey. I am glad you havecome. I have been very anxious. Ihope you can tell us what ishappening and save us . . .’ ‘Save you?’ ‘This is a long-established andbeautiful nunnery,’ Sister Ursulasaid earnestly. ‘I joined it when Iwas just a little girl. I have servedGod and my sisters here for all mylife, I have been here for morethan twenty years. I cannot bearthe thought that Satan hasentered in.’ Luca dipped his bread in the rich
  • 97. thick gravy, and concentrated onthe food to hide his consternation.‘Satan?’ She crossed herself, a quickunthinking gesture of devotion.‘Some days I think it really is thatbad, other days I think I am like afoolish girl, frightening myself withshadows.’ She gave him a shy,apologetic smile. ‘You will be ableto judge. You will discover thetruth of it all. But if we cannot ridourselves of the gossip we will beruined: no family will send theirdaughters to us, and now thefarmers are starting to refuse totrade with us. It is my duty tomake sure that the abbey earnsits own living, that we sell ourgoods and farm produce in orderto buy what we need. I can’t dothat if the farmers’ wives refuse tospeak with us when I send my lay
  • 98. sisters with our goods to market.We can’t trade if the people willneither sell to us nor buy from us.’She shook her head. ‘Anyway, Iwill leave you to eat. The kitchenmaid will show you to yourbedroom in the guesthouse whenyou have finished eating. Blessyou, my brother.’ Luca suddenly realised he hadquite forgotten to say grace: shewould think he was an ignorantmannerless hedge friar. He hadstared at her like a fool andstammered when he spoke to her.He had behaved like a young manwho had never seen a beautifulwoman before and not at all like aman of some importance, come tohead a papal inquiry. What mustshe think of him? ‘Bless you, LadyAlmoner,’ he said awkwardly. She bowed, hiding a little smile
  • 99. at his confusion, and walkedslowly from the room, and hewatched the sway of the hem ofher gown as she left.On the east side of the enclosedabbey, the shutter of the ground-floor window was slightly open sothat two pairs of eyes could watchthe Lady Almoner’s candleilluminate her pale silhouette asshe walked gracefully across theyard and then vanished into herhouse. ‘She’s greeted him, but shewon’t have told him anything,’Isolde whispered. ‘He will find nothing unlesssomeone helps him,’ Ishraqagreed.
  • 100. The two drew back from thewindow and noiselessly closed theshutter. ‘I wish I could see my wayclear,’ Isolde said. ‘I wish I knewwhat to do. I wish I had someonewho could advise me.’ ‘What would your father havedone?’ Isolde laughed shortly. ‘Myfather would never have lethimself be forced in here. Hewould have laid down his lifebefore he allowed someone toimprison him. Or, if captured, hewould have died attempting toescape. He wouldn’t just have sathere, like a doll, like a cowardlygirl, crying, missing him, and notknowing what to do.’ She turned away and roughlyrubbed her eyes. Ishraq put agentle hand on her shoulder.‘Don’t blame yourself,’ she said.
  • 101. ‘There was nothing we could dowhen we first came here. And nowthat the whole abbey is fallingapart around us, we can still donothing until we understand whatis going on. But everything ischanging even while we wait,powerless. Even if we do nothing;something is going to happen.This is our chance. Perhaps this isthe moment when the door swingsopen. We’re going to be ready forour chance.’ Isolde took the hand from hershoulder and held it against hercheek. ‘At least I have you.’ ‘Always.’Luca slept heavily; not even thechurch bell tolling the hour in the
  • 102. tower above his head could wakehim. But, just when the night wasdarkest, before three in themorning, a sharp scream cutthrough his sleep and then heheard the sound of running feet. Luca was up and out of his bedin a moment, his hand snatchingfor the dagger under his pillow,peering out of his window at thedark yard. A glint of moonlightshining on the cobblestonesshowed him a woman in whiteracing across the yard to scrabbleat the beams barring the heavywooden gate. Three womenpursued her, and the old porteresscame running out of thegatehouse and grabbed thewoman’s hands as she clawed likea cat at the timbers. The other women were quick tocatch the girl from behind and
  • 103. Luca heard her sharp wail ofdespair as they grabbed hold ofher, and saw her knees buckle asshe went down under theirweight. He pulled on his breechesand boots, threw a cape over hisnaked shoulders, then sprintedfrom his room, out into the yard,tucking the dagger out of sight inthe scabbard in his boot. Hestepped back into the shadow ofthe building, certain they had notnoticed him, determined to seetheir faces in the shadowy light ofthe moon, so that he would knowthem, when he saw them again. The porteress held up her torchas they lifted the girl, two womenholding her shoulders, the thirdsupporting her legs. As theycarried her past him, Luca shrankback into the concealing darknessof the doorway. They were so
  • 104. close that he could hear theirpanting breaths, one of them wassobbing quietly. It was the strangest sight. Thegirl’s hand had swung down asthey lifted her; now she was quiteunconscious. It seemed that shehad fainted when they had pulledher from the barred gate. Herhead was rolled back, the littlelaces from her nightcap brushingthe ground as they carried her,her long nightgown trailing in thedust. But it was no normal faintingfit. She was as limp as a corpse,her eyes closed, her young faceserene. Then Luca gave a littlehiss of horror. The girl’s swinginghand was pierced in the palm, thewound oozing blood. They hadfolded her other hand across herslight body and Luca could see asmudge of blood on her
  • 105. nightgown. She had the hands ofa girl crucified. Luca froze wherehe stood, forcing himself to stayhidden in the shadows, unable tolook away from the strangeterrible wounds. And then he sawsomething that seemed evenworse. All three women carrying thesleeping girl wore her expressionof rapt serenity. As they shuffledalong, carrying their limp bleedingburden, all three were slightlysmiling, all three were radiant asif with an inner secret joy. And their eyes were closed likehers. Luca waited till they hadsleepwalked past him, steady aspall-bearers, then he went backinto the guesthouse room andknelt at the side of his bed,praying fervently for guidance to
  • 106. somehow find the wisdom, despitehis self-doubt, to discover whatwas so very wrong in this holyplace, and put it right.He was still on his knees in prayerwhen Freize banged open the doorwith a jug of hot water forwashing, just before dawn.‘Thought you’d want to go toPrime.’ ‘Yes.’ Luca rose stiffly, crossedhimself, and kissed the cross thatalways hung around his neck, agift from his mother on hisfourteenth birthday, the last timehe had seen her. ‘Bad things are happening here,’Freize said portentously, splashingthe water into a bowl and putting
  • 107. a clean strip of linen beside it. Luca sluiced his face and handswith water. ‘I know it. God knows,I have seen some of it. What doyou hear?’ ‘Sleepwalking, visions, the nunsfasting on feast days, starvingthemselves and fainting in thechapel. Some of them are seeinglights in the sky, like the starbefore the Magi, and then somewanted to set off for Bethlehemand had to be restrained. Thepeople of the village and theservants from the castle saythey’re all going mad. They saythe whole abbey is touched withmadness and the women arelosing their wits.’ Luca shook his head. ‘The saintsalone know what is going on here.Did you hear the screams in thenight?’
  • 108. ‘Lord save us, no. I slept in thekitchen and all I could hear wassnoring. But all the cooks say thatthe Pope should send a bishop toinquire. They say that Satan iswalking here. The Pope should setup an inquiry.’ ‘He has done! That’s me,’ Lucasnapped. ‘I shall hold an inquiry. Ishall be the judge.’ ‘Course you will,’ Freizeencouraged him. ‘Doesn’t matterhow old you are.’ ‘Actually, it doesn’t matter howold I am. What matters is that Iam appointed to inquire.’ ‘You’d better start with the newLady Abbess, then.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because it all started as soonas she got here.’ ‘I won’t listen to kitchen gossip,’Luca declared haughtily, rubbing
  • 109. his face. He tossed the cloth toFreize. ‘I shall have a properinquiry with witnesses and peoplegiving evidence under oath. For Iam the inquirer, appointed by thePope, and it would be better ifeveryone remembered it.Especially those people who aresupposed to be in service to me,who should be supporting myreputation.’ ‘Course I do! Course you are!Course you will! You’re the lordand I never forget it, though stillonly a little one.’ Freize shook outLuca’s linen shirt and then handedhim his novice’s robe, which hewore belted high, out of the wayof his long stride. Luca strappedhis short sword on his belt andnotched it round his waist,dropping the robe over the swordto hide it.
  • 110. ‘You speak to me like I was achild,’ Luca said irritably. ‘Andyou’re no great age yourself.’ ‘It’s affection,’ Freize said firmly.‘It’s how I show affection. Andrespect. To me, you’ll always be“Sparrow”, the skinny novice.’ ‘“Goose”, the kitchen boy,’ Lucareplied with a grin. ‘Got your dagger?’ Freizechecked. Luca tapped the cuff of his bootwhere the dagger was safe in thescabbard. ‘They all say that the new LadyAbbess had no vocation, and wasnot raised to the life,’ Freizevolunteered, ignoring Luca’s banon gossip. ‘Her father’s will senther in here and she took her vowsand she’ll never get out again. It’sthe only inheritance her father lefther, everything else went to the
  • 111. brother. Bad as being walled up.And, ever since she came, thenuns have started to see thingsand cry out. Half the village saysthat Satan came in with the newabbess. Cause she was unwilling.’ ‘And what do they say thebrother is like?’ Luca asked,tempted to gossip despite hisresolution. ‘Nothing but good of him. Goodlandlord, generous with theabbey. His grandfather built theabbey with a nunnery on one sideand a brother house for the monksnearby. The nuns and the monksshare the services in the abbey.His father endowed both housesand handed the woods and thehigh pasture over to the nuns, andgave some farms and fields to themonastery. They run themselvesas independent houses, working
  • 112. together for the glory of God, andhelping the poor. Now the newlord in his turn supports it. Hisfather was a crusader, famouslybrave, very hot on religion. Thenew lord sounds quieter, stays athome, wants a bit of peace. Verykeen that this is kept quiet, thatyou make your inquiry, take yourdecision, report the guilty,exorcise whatever is going on, andeverything gets back to normal.’ Above their heads the bell tolledfor Prime, the dawn prayer. ‘Come on,’ Luca said, and ledthe way from the visiting priest’srooms towards the cloisters andthe beautiful church. They could hear the music asthey crossed the yard, their way litby a procession of white-gownednuns, carrying torches and singingas they went like a choir of angels
  • 113. gliding through the pearly light ofthe morning. Luca stepped back,and even Freize fell silent at thebeauty of the voices risingfaultlessly into the dawn sky. Thenthe two men, joined by BrotherPeter, followed the choir into thechurch and took their seats in analcove at the back. Two hundrednuns, veiled with white wimples,filled the stalls of the choir eitherside of the screened altar, andstood in rows facing it. The service was a sung Mass;the voice of the serving priest atthe altar rang out the sacred Latinwords in a steady baritone, andthe sweet high voices of thewomen answered. Luca gazed atthe vaulting ceiling, the beautifulcolumns carved with stone fruitand flowers, and above them,stars and moons of silver-painted
  • 114. stone, all the while listening to thepurity of the responses andwondering what could betormenting such holy womenevery night, and how they couldwake every dawn and sing likethis to God. At the end of the service, thethree visiting men remainedseated on the stone bench at theback of the chapel as the nunsfiled out past them, their eyesmodestly down. Luca scannedtheir faces, looking for the youngwoman he had seen in such afrenzy last night, but one paleyoung face veiled in white wasidentical to another. He tried tosee their palms, for the telltalesign of scabs, but all the womenkept their hands clasped together,hidden in their long sleeves. Asthey filed out, their sandals
  • 115. pattering quietly on the stonefloor, the priest followed them,and stopped before the youngmen to say pleasantly, ‘I’ll breakmy fast with you and then I haveto go back to my side of theabbey.’ ‘Are you not a resident priest?’Luca asked, first shaking theman’s hand and then kneeling forhis blessing. ‘We have a monastery just theother side of the great house,’ thepriest explained. ‘The first Lord ofLucretili chose to found tworeligious houses: one for men andone for women. We priests comeover daily to take the services.Alas, this house is of the order ofAugustine nuns. We men are ofthe Dominican order.’ He leanedtowards Luca. ‘As you’dunderstand, I think it would be
  • 116. better for everyone if the nunnerywere put under the discipline ofthe Dominican order. They couldbe supervised from our monasteryand enjoy the discipline of ourorder. Under the Augustinian orderthese women have been allowedto simply do as they please. Andnow you see what happens.’ ‘They observe the services,’Luca protested. ‘They’re notrunning wild.’ ‘Only because they choose to doso. If they wanted to stop or tochange, then they could. Theyhave no rule, unlike usDominicans, for whom everythingis set down. Under theAugustinian order every house canlive as they please. They serveGod as they think best and as aresult—’ He broke off as the Lady
  • 117. Almoner came up, treading quietlyon the beautiful marble floor ofthe church. ‘Well, here is my LadyAlmoner come to bid us tobreakfast, I am sure.’ ‘You can take breakfast in myparlour,’ she said. ‘There is a firelit there. Please, Father, show ourguests the way.’ ‘I will, I will,’ he said pleasantlyand, as she left them, he turnedto Luca. ‘She holds this placetogether,’ he said. ‘A remarkablewoman. Manages the farmlands,maintains the buildings, buys thegoods, sells the produce. Shecould have been the lady of anycastle in Italy, a natural Magistra:a teacher, a leader, a natural ladyof any great house.’ He beamed.‘And, I have to say, her parlour isthe most comfortable room in thisplace and her cook second to
  • 118. none.’ He led the way out of thechurch across the cloister throughthe entrance yard to the housethat formed the eastern side ofthe courtyard. The wooden frontdoor stood open, and they wentinto the parlour, where a tablewas already laid for the three ofthem. Luca and Peter took theirseats. Freize stood at the doorwayto serve the men as one of thelay-woman cooks passed himdishes to set on the table. Theyhad three sorts of roasted meats:ham, lamb and beef; and twotypes of bread: white manchetand dark rye. There were localcheeses, and jams, a basket ofhard-boiled eggs, and a bowl ofplums with a taste so strong thatLuca sliced them on a slice ofwheat bread to eat like sweet
  • 119. jam. ‘Does the Lady Almoner alwayseat privately and not dine with hersisters in the refectory?’ Lucaasked curiously. ‘Wouldn’t you, if you had a cooklike this?’ the priest asked. ‘Highdays and holy days, I don’t doubtthat she sits with her sisters. Butshe likes things done just so; andone of the privileges of her officeis that she has things as she likesthem, in her own house. Shedoesn’t sleep in a dormitory noreat in the refectory. The LadyAbbess is the same in her ownhouse next door. ‘Now,’ he said with a broadsmile. ‘I have a drop of brandy inmy saddlebag. I’ll pour us ameasure. It settles the belly aftera good breakfast.’ He went out ofthe room and Peter got to his feet
  • 120. and looked out of the window atthe entry courtyard where thepriest’s mule was waiting. Idly, Luca glanced round theroom as Freize cleared theirplates. The chimney breast was abeautifully carved wall of polishedwood. When Luca had been a littleboy his grandfather, a carpenter,had made just such a carvedchimney breast for the hall of theirfarmhouse. Then, it had been aninnovation and the envy of thevillage. Behind one of the carvingshad been a secret cupboard wherehis father had kept sugared plums,which he gave to Luca on aSunday, if he had been good allthe week. On a whim, Luca turnedthe five bosses along the front ofthe carved chimney breast oneafter the other. One yielded underhis hand and, to his surprise, a
  • 121. hidden door swung open, just likethe one he’d known as a child.Behind it was a glass jar holdingnot sugared plums but some sortof spice: dried black seeds. Besideit was a cobbler’s awl – a littletool for piercing lace holes inleather. Luca shut the cupboard door.‘My father always used to hidesugared plums in the chimneycupboard,’ he remarked. ‘We didn’t have anything likethis,’ Peter the clerk replied. ‘Weall lived in the kitchen, and mymother turned her roast meats onthe spit in the fireplace andsmoked all her hams in thechimney. When it was morningand the fire was out and wechildren were really hungry, we’dput our heads up into the soot andnibble at the fatty edges of the
  • 122. hams. She used to tell my father itwas mice, God bless her.’ ‘How did you get your learningin such a poor house?’ Luca asked. Peter shrugged. ‘The priest sawthat I was a bright boy, so myparents sent me to themonastery.’ ‘And then?’ ‘Milord asked me if I wouldserve him, serve the order. Ofcourse I said yes.’ The door opened and the priestreturned, a small bottle discreetlytucked into the sleeve of his robe.‘Just a drop helps me on my way,’he said. Luca took a splash of thestrong liquor in his earthenwarecup, Peter refused, and the priesttook a hearty swig from the mouthof the bottle. Freize lookedlongingly from the doorway, butdecided against saying anything.
  • 123. ‘Now I’ll take you to the LadyAbbess,’ the priest said, carefullystoppering the cork. ‘And you’llbear in mind, if she asks you foradvice, that she could put thisnunnery under the care of herbrother monastery, we would runit for her, and all her troubleswould be over.’ ‘I’ll remember,’ Luca said,without committing himself to oneview or the other. The abbess’s house was nextdoor, built on the outer wall of thenunnery, facing inwards onto thecloister and outwards to the forestand the high mountains beyond.The windows that looked to theouter world were heavily leaded,and shielded with thick metalgrilles. ‘This place is built like a squarewithin a square,’ the priest told
  • 124. them. ‘The inner square is madeup of the church, with the cloisterand the nuns’ cells around it. Thishouse extends from the cloister tothe outer courtyard. The LadyAlmoner’s half of the house facesthe courtyard and the main gate,so she can see all the comingsand goings, and the south wall isthe hospital for the poor.’ The priest gestured towards thedoor. ‘The Lady Abbess said foryou to go in.’ He stood back, and
  • 125. Luca and Peter went in, Freizebehind them. They foundthemselves in a small roomfurnished with two woodenbenches and two very plain chairs.A strong wrought-iron grille in thewall on the far side blocked theopening into the next room, veiledby a curtain of white wool. As theystood waiting, the curtain wassilently drawn back and on theother side they could just makeout a white robe, a wimpleheaddress, and a pale facethrough the obscuring mesh of themetal. ‘God bless you and keep you,’ aclear voice said. ‘I welcome you tothis abbey. I am the Lady Abbesshere.’ ‘I am Luca Vero.’ Luca steppedup to the grille, but he could seeonly the silhouette of a woman
  • 126. through the richly wroughtironwork of grapes, fruit, leavesand flowers. There was a faintlight perfume, like rosewater.Behind the lady, he could justmake out the shadowy outline ofanother woman in a dark robe. ‘This is my clerk Brother Peter,and my servant Freize. And I havebeen sent here to make an inquiryinto your abbey.’ ‘I know,’ she said quietly. ‘I did not know that you wereenclosed,’ Luca said, careful not tooffend. ‘It is the tradition that visitorsspeak to the ladies of our orderthrough a grille.’ ‘But I shall need to speak withthem for my inquiry. I shall needthem to come to report to me.’ He could sense her reluctancethrough the bars.
  • 127. ‘Very well,’ she said. ‘Since wehave agreed to your inquiry.’ Luca knew perfectly well, thatthis cool Lady Abbess had notagreed to the inquiry: she hadbeen offered no choice in thematter. His inquiry had been sentto her house by the lord of theOrder, and he would interrogateher sisters with or without herconsent. ‘I shall need a room for myprivate use, and the nuns willhave to come and report to me,under oath, what has beenhappening here,’ Luca said moreconfidently. At his side the priestnodded his approval. ‘I have ordered them to preparea room for you next door to thisone,’ she said. ‘I think it betterthat you should hear evidence inmy house, in the house of the
  • 128. Lady Abbess. They will know thenthat I am co-operating with yourinquiry, that they come here tospeak to you under my blessing.’ ‘It would be better somewhereelse altogether,’ the priest saidquietly to Luca. ‘You should cometo the monastery and order themto attend in our house, under oursupervision. The rule of men, youknow . . . the logic of men . . .always a powerful thing to invoke.This needs a man’s mind on it, nota woman’s fleeting whimsy.’ ‘Thank you, but I will meetthem here,’ Luca said to thepriest. To the Lady Abbess hesaid, ‘I thank you for yourassistance. I am happy to meetwith the nuns in your house.’ ‘But I do wonder why,’ Freizeprompted under his breath to a fatbee bumbling against the small
  • 129. leaded window pane. ‘But I do wonder why,’ Lucarepeated out loud. Freize opened the little windowand released the bee out into thesunshine. ‘There has been much scandaltalked, and some of it directedagainst me,’ the Lady Abbess saidfrankly. ‘I have been accusedpersonally. It is better that thehouse sees that the inquiry isunder my control, is under myblessing. I hope that you will clearmy name, as well as discoveringany wrong-doing and rooting itout.’ ‘We will have to interview you,as well as all the members of theorder,’ Luca pointed out. He could see through the grillethat the white figure had moved,and realised she had bowed her
  • 130. head as if he had shamed her. ‘I am ordered from Rome tohelp you to discover the truth,’ heinsisted. She did not reply but merelyturned her head and spoke tosomeone out of his sight and thenthe door to the room opened andthe elderly nun, the porteressSister Anna who had greeted themon their first night, said abruptly,‘The Lady Abbess says I am toshow you the room for yourinquiry.’ It appeared that their interviewwith the Lady Abbess was over,and they had not even seen herface.It was a plain room, looking out
  • 131. over the woods behind the abbey,in the back of the house so thatthey could not see the cloister, thenuns’ cells, or the comings andgoings of the courtyard before thechurch. But, equally, thecommunity could not see whocame to give evidence. ‘Discreet,’ Peter the clerkremarked. ‘Secretive,’ Freize saidcheerfully. ‘Am I to stand outsideand make sure no-one interruptsor eavesdrops?’ ‘Yes.’ Luca pulled up a chair tothe empty table and waited whileBrother Peter produced papers, ablack quill pen and a pot of ink,then seated himself at the end ofthe table, and looked at Lucaexpectantly. The three young menpaused. Luca, overwhelmed withthe task that lay before him,
  • 132. looked blankly back at the othertwo. Freize grinned at him, andmade an encouraging gesture likesomeone waving a flag. ‘Onward!’he said. ‘Things are so bad here,that we can’t make them worse.’ Luca choked on a boyish laugh.‘I suppose so,’ he said, taking hisseat, and turned to Brother Peter.‘We’ll start with the LadyAlmoner,’ he said, trying to speakdecisively. ‘At least we know hername.’ Freize nodded and went to thedoor. ‘Fetch the Lady Almoner,’ hesaid to Sister Anna. She came straight away, andtook a seat opposite Luca. Hetried not to look at the serenebeauty of her face, her greyknowing eyes that seemed tosmile at him with some privateknowledge.
  • 133. Formally, he took her name, herage – twenty-four – the name ofher parents, and the duration ofher stay in the abbey. She hadbeen behind the abbey walls fortwenty years, since her earliestchildhood. ‘What do you think is happeninghere?’ Luca asked her,emboldened by his position as theinquirer, by his sense of his ownself-importance, and by thetrappings of his work: Freize atthe door, and Brother Peter withhis black quill pen. She looked down at the plainwooden table. ‘I don’t know.There are strange occurrences,and my sisters are very troubled.’ ‘What sort of occurrences?’ ‘Some of my sisters havestarted to have visions, and two ofthem have been rising up in their
  • 134. sleep – getting out of their bedsand walking though their eyes arestill closed. One cannot eat thefood that is served in therefectory, she is starving herselfand cannot be persuaded to eat.And there are other things. Othermanifestations.’ ‘When did it start?’ Luca askedher. She nodded wearily, as if sheexpected such a question. ‘It wasabout three months ago.’ ‘Was that when the new LadyAbbess came?’ A breath of a sigh. ‘Yes. But Iam convinced that she hasnothing to do with it. I would notwant to give evidence to aninquiry that was used against her.Our troubles started then – butyou must remember she has noauthority with the nuns, being so
  • 135. new, so inexperienced, havingdeclared herself unwilling. Anunnery needs strong leadership,supervision, a woman who lovesthe life here. The new LadyAbbess lived a very sheltered lifebefore she came to us, she wasthe favoured child of a great lord,the indulged daughter of a greathouse; she is not accustomed tocommand a religious house. Shewas not raised here. It is notsurprising that she does not knowhow to command.’ ‘Could the nuns be commandedto stop seeing visions? Is it withintheir choice? Has she failed themthrough her inability to command?’ Peter the clerk made a note ofthe question. The Lady Almoner smiled. ‘Not ifthey are true visions from God,’she said easily. ‘If they are true
  • 136. visions, then nothing would stopthem. But if they are errors andfolly, if they are womenfrightening themselves andallowing their fears to rule them .. . If they are women dreamingand making up stories . . . Forgiveme for being so blunt, BrotherLuca, but I have lived in thiscommunity for twenty years and Iknow that two hundred womenliving together can whip up astorm over nothing if they areallowed to do so.’ Luca raised his eyebrows. ‘Theycan invoke sleepwalking? Theycan invoke running out at nightand trying to get out of the gates?’ She sighed. ‘You saw?’ ‘Last night,’ he confirmed. ‘I am sure that there are one ortwo who are truly sleepwalkers. Iam sure that one, perhaps two,
  • 137. have truly seen visions. But now Ihave dozens of young women whoare hearing angels, and seeing themovement of stars, who arewaking in the night and areshrieking out in pain. You mustunderstand, Brother, not all of ournovices are here because theyhave a calling. Very many are senthere by families who have toomany children at home, orbecause the girl is too scholarly,or because she has lost herbetrothed or cannot be married forsome other reason. Sometimesthey send us girls who aredisobedient. Of course, they bringtheir troubles here, at first. Noteveryone has a vocation, noteveryone wants to be here. Andonce one young woman leaves hercell at night, against the rules,and runs around the cloisters,
  • 138. there is always someone who isgoing to join her.’ She paused.‘And then another, and another.’ ‘And the stigmata? The sign ofthe cross on her palms?’ He could see the shock in herface. ‘Who told you about that?’ ‘I saw the girl myself, last night,and the other women who ranafter her.’ She bowed her head andclasped her hands together; hethought for a moment that shewas praying for guidance as towhat she should say next.‘Perhaps it is a miracle,’ she saidquietly. ‘The stigmata. We cannotknow for sure. Perhaps not.Perhaps – Our Lady defend usfrom evil – it is something worse.’ Luca leaned across the table tohear her. ‘Worse? What d’youmean?’
  • 139. ‘Sometimes a devout youngwoman will mark herself with thefive wounds of Christ. Mark herselfas an act of devotion. Sometimesyoung women will go too far.’ Shetook a nervous shuddering breath.‘That is why we need strongdiscipline in the house. The nunsneed to feel that they can becared for, as a daughter is caredfor by her father. They need toknow that there are strict limits totheir behaviour. They need to becarefully ruled.’ ‘You fear that the women areharming themselves?’ Luca asked,shocked. ‘They are young women,’ theLady Almoner repeated. ‘And theyhave no leadership. They becomepassionate, stirred up. It is notunknown for them to cutthemselves, or each other.’
  • 140. Brother Peter and Lucaexchanged a horrified glance,Brother Peter ducked down hishead and made a note. ‘The abbey is wealthy,’ Lucaobserved, speaking at random, todivert himself from his shock. She shook her head. ‘No, wehave a vow of poverty, each andevery one of us. Poverty,obedience and chastity. We canown nothing, we cannot follow ourown will, and we cannot love aman. We have all taken thesevows; there is no escaping them.We have all taken them. We haveall willingly consented.’ ‘Except the Lady Abbess,’ Lucasuggested. ‘I understand that sheprotested. She did not want tocome. She was ordered to enterthe abbey. She did not choose tobe obedient, poor, and without
  • 141. the love of a man.’ ‘You would have to ask her,’ theLady Almoner said with quietdignity. ‘She went through theservice. She gave up her richgowns from the great chests ofclothes that she brought in withher. Out of respect for her positionin the world she was allowed tochange her gown in private. Herown servant shaved her head andhelped her dress in coarse linen,and a wool robe of our order, witha wimple around her head and aveil on top of that. When she wasready she came into the chapeland lay alone on the stone floorbefore the altar, her arms spreadout, her face to the cold floor, andshe gave herself to God. Only shecan know if she took the vows inher heart. Her mind is hidden fromus, her sisters.’
  • 142. She hesitated. ‘But her servant,of course, did not take the vows.She lives among us as an outsider.Her servant, as far as I know,follows no rules at all. I don’tknow if she even obeys the LadyAbbess, or if their relationship ismore . . .’ ‘More what?’ Luca asked,horrified. ‘More unusual,’ she said. ‘Her servant? Is she a laysister?’ ‘I don’t know quite what youwould call her. She was the LadyAbbess’s personal servant fromchildhood, and when the LadyAbbess joined us, the slave cametoo; she just accompanied herwhen she came, like a dog followshis master. She lives in the houseof the Lady Abbess. She used tosleep in the storeroom next door
  • 143. to the Lady Abbess’s room, shewouldn’t sleep in the nun’s cells,then she started to sleep on thethreshold of her room, like aslave. Recently she has taken tosleeping in the bed with her.’ Shepaused. ‘Like a bedmate.’ Shehesitated. ‘I am not suggestinganything else,’ she said. Brother Peter’s pen wassuspended, his mouth open; buthe said nothing. ‘She attends the church,following the Lady Abbess like hershadow; but she doesn’t say theprayers, nor confess, nor takeMass. I assume she is an infidel. Ireally don’t know. She is anexception to our rule. We don’tcall her Sister, we call her Ishraq.’ ‘Ishraq?’ Luca repeated thestrange name. ‘She was born an Ottoman,’ the
  • 144. Lady Almoner said, her voicecarefully controlled. ‘You willnotice her around the abbey. Shewears a dark robe like a Moorishwoman, sometimes she holds aveil across her face. Her skin isthe colour of caramel sugar, it isthe same colour: all over. Naked,she is golden, like a woman madeof toffee. The last lord brought herback with him as a baby fromJerusalem when he returned fromthe crusades. Perhaps he ownedher as a trophy, perhaps as a pet.He did not change her name nordid he have her baptised; but hadher brought up with his daughteras her personal slave.’ ‘Do you think she could havehad anything to do with thedisturbances? Since they startedwhen she came into the abbey?Since she came in with the Lady
  • 145. Abbess, at the same time?’ She shrugged. ‘Some of thenuns were afraid of her when theyfirst saw her. She is a heretic, ofcourse, and fierce-looking. She isalways in the shadow of the LadyAbbess. They found her . . .’ Shepaused. ‘Disturbing,’ she said,then nodded at the word she hadchosen. ‘She is disturbing. Wewould all say that: disturbing.’ ‘What does she do?’ ‘She does nothing for God,’ theLady Almoner said with suddenpassion. ‘For sure, she doesnothing for the abbey. Whereverthe Lady Abbess goes, she goestoo. She never leaves her side.’ ‘Surely she goes out? She is notenclosed?’ ‘She never leaves the LadyAbbess’s side,’ she contradictedhim. ‘And the Lady Abbess never
  • 146. goes out. The slave haunts theplace. She walks in shadows, shestands in dark corners, shewatches everything, and shespeaks to none of us. It is as if wehave trapped a strange animal. Ifeel as if I am keeping a tawnylioness, encaged.’ ‘Are you afraid of her, yourself?’Luca asked bluntly. She raised her head and lookedat him with her clear grey gaze. ‘Itrust that God will protect me fromall evil,’ she said. ‘But if I were notcertain sure that I am under thehand of God she would be an utterterror to me.’ There was silence in the littleroom, as if a whisper of evil hadpassed among them. Luca felt thehairs on his neck prickle, whilebeneath the table Brother Peterfelt for the crucifix that he wore at
  • 147. his belt. ‘Which of the nuns should Ispeak to first?’ Luca asked,breaking the silence. ‘Write downfor me the names of those whohave been walking in their sleep,showing stigmata, seeing visions,fasting.’ He pushed the paper and thequill before her and, without hasteor hesitation, she wrote six namesclearly, and returned the paper tohim. ‘And you?’ he asked. ‘Have youseen visions, or walked in yoursleep?’ Her smile at the younger manwas almost alluring. ‘I wake in thenight for the church services, and Igo to my prayers,’ she said. ‘Youwon’t find me anywhere but warmin my bed.’ As Luca blinked that vision from
  • 148. his mind, she rose from the tableand left the room. ‘Impressive woman,’ Peter saidquietly, as the door shut behindher. ‘Think of her being in anunnery from the age of four! Ifshe’d been in the outside world,what might she have done?’ ‘Silk petticoats,’ Freizeremarked, inserting his broadhead around the door from thehall outside. ‘Unusual.’ ‘What? What?’ Luca demanded,furious for no reason, feeling hisheart pound at the thought of theLady Almoner sleeping in herchaste bed. ‘Unusual to find a nun in silkpetticoats. Hair shirt, yes – that’sextreme perhaps, but traditional.Silk petticoats, no.’ ‘How the Devil do you knowthat she wears silk petticoats?’
  • 149. Peter demanded irritably. ‘Andhow dare you speak so, and ofsuch a lady?’ ‘Saw them drying in the laundry,wondered who they belonged to.Seemed an odd sort of garmentfor a nunnery vowed to poverty.Started to listen. I may be a foolbut I can listen. Heard themwhisper as she walked by me. Shedidn’t know I was listening, shewalked by me as if I was a stone,a tree. Silk gives a little hss hsshss sound.’ He nodded smugly atPeter. ‘More than one way tomake inquiry. Don’t have to beable to write to be able to think.Sometimes it helps to just listen.’ Brother Peter ignored himcompletely. ‘Who next?’ he askedLuca. ‘The Lady Abbess,’ Luca ruled.‘Then her servant, Ishraq.’
  • 150. ‘Why not see Ishraq first, andthen we can hold her next doorwhile the Lady Abbess speaks,’Peter suggested. ‘That way wecan make sure they don’t collude.’ ‘Collude in what?’ Lucademanded, impatiently. ‘That’s the whole thing,’ Petersaid. ‘We don’t know what they’redoing.’ ‘Collude.’ Freize carefullyrepeated the strange word. ‘Col-lude. Funny how some words justsound guilty.’ ‘Just fetch the slave,’ Lucacommanded. ‘You’re not theinquirer, you are supposed to beserving me as your lord. And makesure she doesn’t talk to anyone asshe comes to us.’ Freize walked round to the LadyAbbess’s kitchen door and askedfor the servant, Ishraq. She came
  • 151. veiled like a desert-dweller,dressed in a tunic and pantaloonsof black, a shawl over her headpinned across her face, hiding hermouth. All he could see of herwere her bare brown feet – asilver ring on one toe – and herdark inscrutable eyes above herveil. Freize smiled reassuringly ather; but she responded not at all,and they walked in silence to theroom. She seated herself beforeLuca and Brother Peter withoututtering one word. ‘Your name is Ishraq?’ Lucaasked her. ‘I don’t speak Italian,’ she saidin perfect Italian. ‘You are speaking it now.’ She shook her head and saidagain: ‘I don’t speak Italian.’ ‘Your name is Ishraq.’ He triedagain in French.
  • 152. ‘I don’t speak French,’ shereplied in perfectly accentedFrench. ‘Your name is Ishraq,’ he said inLatin. ‘It is,’ she conceded in Latin.‘But I don’t speak Latin.’ ‘What language do you speak?’ ‘I don’t speak.’ Luca recognised a stalemateand leaned forwards, drawing onas much authority as he could.‘Listen, woman: I am commandedby the Holy Father himself tomake inquiry into the events inthis nunnery and to send him myreport. You had better answer me,or face not just my displeasure,but his.’ She shrugged. ‘I am dumb,’ shesaid simply, in Latin. ‘And ofcourse, he may be your HolyFather, but he is not mine.’
  • 153. ‘Clearly you can speak,’ BrotherPeter intervened. ‘Clearly you canspeak several languages.’ She turned her insolent eyes tohim, and shook her head. ‘You speak to the Lady Abbess.’ Silence. ‘We have powers to make youspeak,’ Brother Peter warned her. At once she looked down, herdark eyelashes veiling her gaze.When she looked up Luca sawthat her dark brown eyes werecrinkled at the edges, and she wasfighting her desire to laugh outloud at Brother Peter. ‘I don’tspeak,’ was all she said. ‘And Idon’t think you have any powersover me.’ Luca flushed scarlet with thequick temper of a young man whohas been mocked by a woman.‘Just go,’ Luca said shortly.
  • 154. To Freize, who put his long facearound the door, he snapped:‘Send for the Lady Abbess. Andhold this dumb woman next door,alone.’Isolde stood in the inner doorway,her hood pulled so far forwardsthat it cast a deep shadow overher face, her hands hidden in herdeep sleeves, only her lithe whitefeet showing below her robe, intheir plain sandals. IrrelevantlyLuca noticed that her toes wererosy with cold and her instepsarched high. ‘Come in,’ Luca said,trying to recover his temper.‘Please take a seat.’ She sat; but she did not putback her hood, so Luca found he
  • 155. was forced to bend his head topeer under it to try to see her. Inthe shadow of the hood he couldmake out only a heart-shaped jawline with a determined mouth. Therest of her remained a mystery. ‘Will you put back your hood,Lady Abbess?’ ‘I would rather not.’ ‘The Lady Almoner faced uswithout a hood.’ ‘I was made to swear to avoidthe company of men,’ she saidcoldly. ‘I was commanded toswear to remain inside this orderand not meet or speak with menexcept for the fewest words andthe briefest meeting. I am obeyingthe vows I was forced to take. Itwas not my choice, it was laidupon me by the Church. You, fromthe Church, should be pleased atmy obedience.’
  • 156. Brother Peter tucked his paperstogether and waited, pen poised. ‘Would you tell us of thecircumstances of your coming tothe nunnery?’ Luca asked. ‘They are well-enough known,’she said. ‘My father died three anda half months ago and left hiscastle and his lands entirely to mybrother, the new lord, as is rightand proper. My mother was dead,and to me he left nothing but thechoice of a suitor in marriage or aplace in the abbey. My brother,the new Lord Lucretili, acceptedmy decision not to marry and didme the great favour of putting mein charge of this nunnery, and Icame in, took my vows, andstarted my service as their LadyAbbess.’ ‘How old are you?’ ‘I am seventeen,’ she told him.
  • 157. ‘Isn’t that very young to be aLady Abbess?’ The half-hidden mouth showeda wry smile. ‘Not if yourgrandfather founded the abbeyand your brother is its only patron,of course. The Lord of Lucretili canappoint who he chooses.’ ‘You had a vocation?’ ‘Alas, I did not. I came here inobedience to my brother’s wishand my father’s will. Not because Ifeel I have a calling.’ ‘Did you not want to rebelagainst your brother’s wish andyour father’s will?’ There was a moment of silence.She raised her head and from thedepth of her hood he saw herregard him thoughtfully, as if shewere considering him as a manwho might understand her. ‘Of course, I was tempted by
  • 158. the sin of disobedience,’ she saidlevelly. ‘I did not understand whymy father would treat me so. Hehad never spoken to me of theabbey nor suggested that hewanted a life of holiness for me.On the contrary, he spoke to meof the outside world, of being awoman of honour and power inthe world, of managing my landsand supporting the Church as itcomes under attack both here andin the Holy Land. But my brotherwas with my father on hisdeathbed, heard his last words,and afterwards he showed me hiswill. It was clearly my father’s lastwish that I come here. I loved myfather, I love him still. I obey himin death as I obeyed him in life.’Her voice shook slightly as shespoke of her father. ‘I am a gooddaughter to him; now as then.’
  • 159. ‘They say that you brought yourslave with you, a Moorish girlnamed Ishraq, and that she isneither a lay sister nor has shetaken her vows.’ ‘She is not my slave; she is afree woman. She may do as shepleases.’ ‘So what is she doing here?’ ‘Whatever she wishes.’ Luca was sure that he saw inher shadowed eyes the samegleam of defiance that the slavehad shown. ‘Lady Abbess,’ he saidsternly. ‘You should have nocompanions but the sisters of yourorder.’ She looked at him with anuntameable confidence. ‘I don’tthink so,’ she said. ‘I don’t thinkyou have the authority to tell meso. And I don’t think that I wouldlisten to you, even if you said that
  • 160. you had the authority. As far as Iknow there is no law that says awoman, an infidel, may not entera nunnery and serve alongside thenuns. There is no tradition thatexcludes her. We are of theAugustine order, and as LadyAbbess I can manage this houseas I see fit. Nobody can tell mehow to do it. If you make me LadyAbbess then you give me the rightto decide how this house shall berun. Having forced me to take thepower, you can be sure that I shallrule.’ The words were defiant, buther voice was very calm. ‘They say she has not left yourside since you came to theabbey?’ ‘This is true.’ ‘She has never gone out of thegates?’ ‘Neither have I.’
  • 161. ‘She is with you night and day?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘They say that she sleeps inyour bed?’ Luca said boldly. ‘Who says?’ the Lady Abbessasked him evenly. Luca looked down at his notes,and Brother Peter shuffled thepapers. She shrugged, as if she werefilled with disdain for them and fortheir gossipy inquiry. ‘I supposeyou have to ask everybody,everything that they imagine,’ shesaid dismissively. ‘You will have tochatter like a clattering ofchoughs. You will hear the wildestof talk from the most fearful andimaginative people. You will asksilly girls to tell you tales.’ ‘Where does she sleep?’ Lucapersisted, feeling a fool. ‘Since the abbey became so
  • 162. disturbed she has chosen to sleepin my bed, as she did when wewere children. This way she canprotect me.’ ‘Against what?’ She sighed as if she were wearyof his curiosity. ‘Of course, I don’tknow. I don’t know what she fearsfor me. I don’t know what I fearfor myself. In truth, I think no-oneknows what is happening here.Isn’t this what you are here to findout?’ ‘Things seem to have gone verybadly wrong since you came here.’ She bowed her head in silencefor a moment. ‘Now that is true,’she conceded. ‘But it is nothingthat I have deliberately done. Idon’t know what is happeninghere. I regret it very much. Itcauses me, me personally, greatpain. I am puzzled. I am . . . lost.’
  • 163. ‘Lost?’ Luca repeated the wordthat seemed freighted withloneliness. ‘Lost,’ she confirmed. ‘You don’t know how to rule theabbey?’ Her head bowed down as if shewere praying again. Then a smallsilent nod of her head admittedthe truth of it: that she did notknow how to command the abbey.‘Not like this,’ she whispered. ‘Notwhen they say they arepossessed, not when they behavelike madwomen.’ ‘You have no vocation,’ Lucasaid very quietly to her. ‘Do youwish yourself on the outside ofthese walls, even now?’ She breathed out a tiny sigh oflonging. Luca could almost feelher desire to be free, her sensethat she should be free. Absurdly,
  • 164. he thought of the bee that Freizehad released to fly out into thesunshine, he thought that everyform of life, even the smallestbee, longs to be free. ‘How can this abbey hope tothrive with a Lady Abbess whowishes herself free?’ he asked hersternly. ‘You know that we have toserve where we have sworn tobe.’ ‘You don’t.’ She rounded on himalmost as if she were angry. ‘Foryou were sworn to be a priest in asmall country monastery; but hereyou are – free as a bird. Ridingaround the country on the besthorses that the Church can giveyou, followed by a squire and aclerk. Going where you want andquestioning anyone. Free toquestion me – even authorised toquestion me, who lives here and
  • 165. serves here and prays here, anddoes nothing but sometimessecretly wish . . .’ ‘It is not for you to passcomment on us,’ Brother Peterintervened. ‘The Pope himself hasauthorised us. It is not for you toask questions.’ Luca let it go, secretly relievedthat he did not have to admit tothe Lady Abbess his joy at beingreleased from his monastery, hisdelight in his horse, his unendinginsatiable curiosity. She tossed her head at BrotherPeter’s ruling. ‘I would expect youto defend him,’ she remarkeddismissively. ‘I would expect youto stick together, as men do, asmen always do.’ She turned to Luca. ‘Of course, Ihave thought that I am utterlyunsuited to be a Lady Abbess. But
  • 166. what am I to do? My father’swishes were clear, my brotherorders everything now. My fatherwished me to be Lady Abbess andmy brother has ordered that I am.So here I am. It may be againstmy wishes, it may be against thewishes of the community. But it isthe command of my brother andmy father. I will do what I can. Ihave taken my vows. I am boundhere till death.’ ‘You swore fully?’ ‘I did.’ ‘You shaved your head andrenounced your wealth?’ A tiny gesture of the veiledhead warned him that he hadcaught her in some smalldeception. ‘I cut my hair, and I putaway my mother’s jewels,’ shesaid cautiously. ‘I will never bebare-headed again, I will never
  • 167. wear her sapphires.’ ‘Do you think that thesemanifestations of distress andtrouble are caused by you?’ heasked bluntly. Her little gasp revealed herdistress at the charge. Almost, sherecoiled from what he was saying,then gathered her courage andleaned towards him. He caught aglimpse of intense dark blue eyes.‘Perhaps. It is possible. You wouldbe the one to discover such athing. You have been appointed todiscover such things, after all.Certainly I don’t wish things asthey are. I don’t understand them,and they hurt me too. It is not justthe sisters, I too am—’ ‘You are?’ ‘Touched,’ she said quietly. Luca, his head spinning, lookedto Brother Peter, whose pen was
  • 168. suspended in midair over thepage, his mouth agape. ‘Touched?’ Luca repeatedwondering wildly if she meant thatshe was going insane. ‘Wounded,’ she amended. ‘In what way?’ She shook her head as if shewould not fully reply. ‘Deeply,’ wasall she said. There was a long silence in thesunlit room. Freize outside,hearing the voices cease theirconversation, opened the door,looked in, and received such ablack scowl from Luca that hequickly withdrew. ‘Sorry,’ he saidas the door shut. ‘Should not the nunnery be putinto the charge of your brotherhouse, the Dominicans?’ Peterasked bluntly. ‘You could bereleased from your vows and the
  • 169. head of the monastery could ruleboth communities. The nuns couldcome under the discipline of theLord Abbot, the business affairs ofthe nunnery could be passed tothe castle. You would be free toleave.’ ‘Put men to rule women?’ Shelooked up as if she would laugh athim. ‘Is that all you can suggest –the three of you? Going to thetrouble to come all the way fromRome on your fine horses, a clerk,an inquirer and a servant, and thebest idea you have is that anunnery shall give up itsindependence and be ruled bymen? You would break up our oldand traditional order, you woulddestroy us who are made in theimage of Our Lady Mary, and putus under the rule of men?’ ‘God gave men the rule over
  • 170. everything,’ Luca pointed out. ‘Atthe creation of the world.’ Her flash of laughing defiancedeserted her as soon as it hadcome. ‘Oh, perhaps,’ she said,suddenly weary. ‘If you say so. Idon’t know. I wasn’t raised tothink so. But I know that is whatsome of the sisters want, I know itis what the brothers say shouldhappen. I don’t know if it is thewill of God. I don’t know that Godparticularly wants men to ruleover women. My father neversuggested such a thing to me andhe was a crusader who had goneto the Holy Land himself andprayed at the very birthplace ofJesus. He raised me to think ofmyself as a child of God and awoman of the world. He nevertold me that God had set menover women. He said God had
  • 171. created them together, to behelpers and lovers to each other.But I don’t know. Certainly God –if He ever stoops to speak to awoman – does not speak to me.’ ‘And what is your own will?’Luca asked her. ‘You, who arehere, though you say you don’twant to be here? With a servantwho speaks three languages butclaims to be dumb? Praying to aGod who does not speak to you?You, who say you are hurt? You,who say you are touched? What isyour will?’ ‘I have no will,’ she said simply.‘It’s too soon for me. My fatherdied only fourteen weeks ago. Canyou imagine what that is like forhis daughter? I loved him deeply,he was my only parent, the heroof my childhood. He commandedeverything, he was the very sun of
  • 172. my world. I wake every morningand have to remind myself that heis dead. I came into the nunneryonly days after his death, in thefirst week of mourning. Can youimagine that? The troubles startedto happen almost at once. Myfather is dead and everyonearound me is either feigningmadness, or they are going mad. ‘So if you ask me what I want, Iwill tell you. All I want to do is tocry and sleep. All I want to do isto wish that none of this had everhappened. In my worse moments,I want to tie the rope of the bell inthe bell tower around my throatand let it sweep me off my feetand break my neck as it tolls.’ The violence of her wordsclanged like a tolling bell itselfinto the quiet room. ‘Self-harm isblasphemy,’ Luca said quickly.
  • 173. ‘Even thinking of it is a sin. Youwill have to confess such a wish toa priest, accept the penance hesets you, and never think of itagain.’ ‘I know,’ she replied. ‘I know.And that is why I only wish it, anddon’t do it.’ ‘You are a troubled woman.’ Hehad no idea what he should say tocomfort her. ‘A troubled girl.’ She raised her head and, fromthe darkness of her hood, hethought he saw the ghost of asmile. ‘I don’t need an inquirer tocome all the way from Rome totell me that. But would you helpme?’ ‘If I could,’ he said. ‘If I can, Iwill.’ They were silent. Luca felt thathe had somehow pledged himselfto her. Slowly, she pushed back
  • 174. her hood, just a little, so that hecould see the blaze of her honestblue eyes. Then Brother Peternoisily dipped his pen in the bottleof ink, and Luca recollectedhimself. ‘I saw a nun last night runacross the courtyard, chased bythree others,’ he said. ‘Thiswoman got to the outer gate andhammered on it with her fists,screaming like a vixen, a terriblesound, the cry of the damned.They caught her and carried herback to the cloister. I assume theyput her back in her cell?’ ‘They did,’ she said coldly. ‘I saw her hands,’ he told her;and now he felt as if he were notmaking an inquiry, but anaccusation. He felt as if he wereaccusing her. ‘She was marked onthe palms of her hand, with the
  • 175. sign of the crucifixion, as if shewas showing, or faking, thestigmata.’ ‘She is no fake,’ the LadyAbbess told him with quiet dignity.‘This is a pain to her, not a sourceof pride.’ ‘You know this?’ ‘I know it for certain.’ ‘Then I will see her thisafternoon. You will send her tome.’ ‘I will not.’ Her calm refusal threw Luca.‘You have to!’ ‘I will not send her thisafternoon. The whole communityis watching the door to my house.You have arrived with enoughfanfare, the whole abbey, brothersand sisters, know that you arehere and that you are takingevidence. I will not have her
  • 176. further shamed. It is bad enoughfor her with everyone knowingthat she is showing these signsand dreaming these dreams. Youcan meet her; but at a time of mychoosing, when no-one iswatching.’ ‘I have an order from the Popehimself to interview the wrong-doers.’ ‘Is that what you think of me?That I am a wrong-doer?’ shesuddenly asked. ‘No. I should have said I havean order from the Pope to hold aninquiry.’ ‘Then do so,’ she saidimpertinently. ‘But you will not seethat young woman until it is safefor her to come to you.’ ‘When will that be?’ ‘Soon. When I judge it is right.’ Luca realised he would get no
  • 177. further with the Lady Abbess. Tohis surprise, he was not angry. Hefound that he admired her; heliked her bright sense of honour,and he shared her ownbewilderment at what washappening in the nunnery. Butmore than anything else, he pitiedher loss. Luca knew what it was tomiss a parent, to be withoutsomeone who would care for you,love you and protect you. Heknew what it was to face theworld alone and feel yourself to bean orphan. He found he was smiling at her,though he could not see if she wassmiling back. ‘Lady Abbess, youare not an easy woman tointerrogate.’ ‘Brother Luca, you are not aneasy man to refuse,’ she replied,and she rose from the table
  • 178. without permission, and left theroom.For the rest of the day Luca andBrother Peter interviewed one nunafter another, taking each one’shistory, and her hopes, and fears.They ate alone in the LadyAlmoner’s parlour, served byFreize. In the afternoon, Lucaremarked that he could not standanother white-faced girl tellinghim that she had bad dreams andthat she was troubled by herconscience, and swore that he hadto take a break from the worriesand fears of women. They saddled their horses andthe three men rode out into thegreat beech forest where the
  • 179. massive trees arched high abovethem, shedding copper-colouredleaves and beech mast in aconstant whisper. The horseswere almost silent as their hooveswere muffled by the thickness ofthe forest floor and Luca rodeahead, on his own, weary of themany plaintive voices of the day,wondering if he would be able tomake any sense of all he hadheard, fearful that all he wasdoing was listening tomeaningless dreams and beingfrightened by fantasies. The track led them higher andhigher until they emerged abovethe woodland, looking down theway they had come. Above them,the track went on, narrower andmore stony, up to the highmountains that stood, bleak andlovely, all around them.
  • 180. ‘This is better.’ Freize patted hishorse’s neck as they paused for amoment. Down below them theycould see the little village ofLucretili, the grey slate roof of theabbey, the two religious housesplaced on either side of it, and thedominating castle where the newlord’s standard fluttered in thewind over the round gatehousetower. The air was cold. Above them asolitary eagle wheeled away.Brother Peter tightened his cloakaround his shoulders and lookedat Luca, to remind him that theymust not stay out too long. Together they turned the horsesand rode along the crest of thehill, keeping the woodland to theirright, and then, at the firstwoodcutter’s trail, dropped downtowards the valley again, falling
  • 181. silent as the trees closed aroundthem. The trail wound through theforest. Once they heard the trickleof water, and then the drillingnoise of a woodpecker. Just whenthey thought they had overshotthe village they came out into aclearing and saw a wide trackheading to the castle of Lucretiliwhich stood, like a grey stoneguard post, dominating the road. ‘He does all right for himself,’Freize observed, looking at thehigh castle walls, the drawbridgeand the rippling standards. Fromthe lord’s stables they could hearthe howling of his pack ofdeerhounds. ‘Not a bad life. Thewealth to enjoy it all, hunting yourown deer, living off your owngame, enough money to take aride into Rome to see the sights
  • 182. when you feel like it, and a cellarfull of your own wine.’ ‘Saints save her, how she mustmiss her home,’ Luca remarked,looking at the tall towers of thebeautiful castle, the rides whichled deep into the forest andbeyond to lakes, hills, andstreams. ‘From all this wealth andfreedom to four square walls anda life enclosed till death! Howcould a father who loved hisdaughter bring her up to be freehere, and then have her locked upon his death?’ ‘Better that than a bad husbandwho would beat her as soon asher brother’s back was turned,better that than die in childbirth,’Brother Peter pointed out. ‘Betterthat than being swept off her feetby some fortune-hunter, and allthe family wealth and good name
  • 183. destroyed in a year.’ ‘Depends on the fortune-hunter,’Freize volunteered. ‘A lusty manwith a bit of charm about himmight have brought a flush to hercheek, given her somethingpleasant to dream about.’ ‘Enough,’ Luca ruled. ‘You maynot talk about her like that.’ ‘Seems we mustn’t think of herlike a pretty lass,’ Freize remarkedto his horse. ‘Enough,’ Luca repeated. ‘Andyou don’t know what she lookslike, any more than I do.’ ‘Ha, but I can tell by her walk,’Freize said quietly to his horse.‘You can always tell a pretty girlby the way she walks. A pretty girlwalks like she owns the world.’
  • 184. Isolde and Ishraq were at thewindow as the young men cameback through the gate. ‘Can’t youjust smell the open air on theirclothes?’ the first one whispered.‘When he leaned forwards I couldjust smell the forest, and the freshair, and the wind that comes offthe mountain.’ ‘We could go out, Isolde.’ ‘You know I cannot.’ ‘We could go out in secret,’ theother replied. ‘At night, throughthe little postern gate. We couldjust walk in the woods in thestarlight. If you long for theoutside, we don’t have to beprisoners here.’ ‘You know that I took vows thatI would never leave here . . .’ ‘When so many vows are beingbroken?’ the other urged. ‘When
  • 185. we have turned the abbey upsidedown and brought hell in herewith us? What would one more sinmatter? How does it matter whatwe do now?’ The gaze that Isolde turned onher friend was dark with guilt. ‘Ican’t give up,’ she whispered.‘Whatever people think I havedone or say I have done,whatever I have done – I won’tgive up on myself. I’ll keep myword.’The three men attendedCompline, the last service beforethe nuns went to bed for thenight. Freize looked longingly atthe Lady Almoner’s stores as thethree men walked out of the
  • 186. cloister and separated to go totheir rooms. ‘What I wouldn’t givefor a glass of sweet wine as anightcap,’ he said. ‘Or two. Orthree.’ ‘You really are a hopelessservant for a religious man,’ Peterremarked. ‘Wouldn’t you havedone better in an ale house?’ ‘And how would the little lordmanage without me?’ Freizedemanded indignantly. ‘Whowatched over him in themonastery and kept him safe?Who fed him when he was nothingmore than a long-legged sparrow?Who follows him now wherever hegoes? Who keeps the door forhim?’ ‘Did he watch over you in themonastery?’ Peter asked, turningin surprise to Luca. Luca laughed. ‘He watched over
  • 187. my dinner and ate everything Ileft,’ he said. ‘He drank my wineallowance. In that sense hewatched me very closely.’ At Freize’s protest, Lucathumped him on the shoulder. ‘Ah,all right! All right!’ To Peter hesaid: ‘When I first entered themonastery he watched out for meso that I wasn’t beaten by theolder boys. When I was chargedwith heresy he gave witness forme, though he couldn’t make headnor tail of what they said I haddone. He has been loyal to me,always, from the moment of ourfirst meeting when I was a scarednovice and he was a lazy kitchenboy. And when I was given thismission he asked to be releasedto go with me.’ ‘There you are!’ Freize saidtriumphantly.
  • 188. ‘But why does he call you “littlelord”?’ Peter pursued. Luca shook his head. ‘Whoknows? I don’t.’ ‘Because he was no ordinaryboy,’ Freize explained eagerly. ‘Soclever and, when he was a child,quite beautiful like an angel. Andthen everyone said he was not ofearthly making . . .’ ‘Enough of that!’ Luca saidshortly. ‘He calls me “little lord” toserve his own vanity. He wouldpretend he was in service to aprince if he thought he could getaway with it.’ ‘You’ll see,’ Freize said, noddingsolemnly to Brother Peter. ‘He’snot an ordinary young man.’ ‘I look forward to witnessingexceptional abilities,’ BrotherPeter said drily. ‘Sooner ratherthan later, if possible. Now, I’m for
  • 189. my bed.’ Luca raised his hand ingoodnight to the two of them andturned into the priest house. Heclosed the door behind him andpulled off his boots, putting hisconcealed dagger carefully underthe pillow. He laid out the paperabout the number zero on oneside of the table, and thestatements that Peter had writtendown on the other. He planned tostudy the statements and thenreward himself with looking at themanuscript about zero, workingthrough the night. Then he wouldattend the service of Lauds. At about two in the morning, atiny knock at the door made himmove swiftly from the table totake up the dagger from under hispillow. ‘Who’s there?’ ‘A sister.’
  • 190. Luca tucked the knife into hisbelt, at his back, and opened thedoor a crack. A woman, a veil ofthick lace completely obscuringher face, stood silently in hisdoorway. He glanced quickly upand down the deserted galleryand stepped back to indicate thatshe could come inside. In the backof his mind he thought he wastaking a risk letting her come tohim without witnesses, withoutBrother Peter to take a note of allthat was said. But she too wastaking a risk, and breaking hervows, to be alone with a man. Shemust be driven by something verypowerful to step into a man’sbedroom, alone. He saw that she held her handscupped, as if she were hidingsomething small in her palms. ‘You wanted to see me,’ she
  • 191. said quietly. Her voice was lowand sweet. ‘You wanted to seethis.’ She held out her hands to him.Luca flinched in horror as he sawthat in the centre of both was aneat shallow hole, and each palmwas filled with blood. ‘Jesu saveus!’ ‘Amen,’ she said instantly. Luca reached for the linenwashcloth and tore a strip roughlyoff the side. He splashed wateronto it from the ewer, and gentlypatted each wound. She flinched alittle as he touched her. ‘I amsorry, I am sorry.’ ‘They don’t hurt much, they’renot deep.’ Luca dabbed away the bloodand saw that both wounds hadstopped bleeding and werebeginning to form small scabs.
  • 192. ‘When did this happen?’ ‘I woke just now, and they werelike this.’ ‘Has it happened before?’ ‘Last night. I had a terribledream, and when I woke I was inmy cell, in my bed, but my feetwere muddy and my hands werefilled with blood.’ ‘I think that it was you that Isaw,’ he said. ‘In the entranceyard? Do you remember nothing?’ She shook her head and thelace veil moved but did not revealher face. ‘I just woke and myhands were like this, newlymarked. It has happened before.Sometimes I have woken in themorning and found them woundedbut they have already stoppedbleeding, as if they came earlier inthe night, without even wakingme. They are not deep, you see,
  • 193. they heal within days.’ ‘Do you have a vision?’ ‘A vision of horror!’ she suddenlybroke out. ‘I cannot believe it isthe work of God to wake me withbleeding hands. I have no senseof holiness, I feel nothing butterror. This cannot be Godstabbing me. These must beblasphemous wounds.’ ‘God might be working throughyou, mysteriously . . .’ Luca tried. She shook her head. ‘It feelsmore like punishment. For beinghere, for following the services,and yet being cursed with arebellious heart.’ ‘How many of you are hereunwillingly?’ ‘Who knows? Who knows whatpeople think when they gothrough each day in silence,praying as they are commanded
  • 194. to do, singing as they areordered? We are not allowed tospeak to one another during theday except to repeat our orders orsay our prayers. Who knows whatanyone is thinking? Who knowswhat we are all privatelythinking?’ She spoke so powerfully toLuca’s own sense that the nunnerywas full of secrets that he couldnot bring himself to ask heranything more, but chose to actinstead. He took a sheet of cleanpaper. ‘Put your palms down onthis,’ he commanded. ‘First theright and then the left.’ She looked as if she would liketo refuse but did as he ordered,and they both looked, in horror, atthe two neat triangular prints thather blood left on the whiteness ofthe manuscript and the haze of
  • 195. her bloody palm print aroundthem. ‘Brother Peter has to see yourhands,’ Luca decided. ‘You willhave to make a statement.’ He expected her to protest; butshe did not. She bowed her headin obedience to him. ‘Come to my inquiry roomtomorrow, first thing,’ he said.‘Straight after Prime.’ ‘Very well,’ she said easily. Sheopened the door and slippedthrough. ‘And what is your name, Sister?’Luca asked, but she was alreadygone. It was only then that herealised that she would not cometo the inquiry room and testify,and that he did not know hername.
  • 196. Luca waited impatiently afterPrime, but the nun did not come.He was too irritated with himselfto explain to Freize and BrotherPeter why he would see no-oneelse, but sat in the room, the dooropen, the papers on the tablebefore them. In the end, he declared that hehad to ride out to clear his head,and went to the stables. One ofthe lay sisters was hauling muckout of the stable yard, and shebrought his horse and saddled itfor him. It was odd to Luca, whohad lived for so long in a worldwithout women, to see all thehard labouring work done bywomen, all the religious servicesobserved by women, living
  • 197. completely self-sufficiently, in aworld without men except for thevisiting priest. It added to hissense of unease anddisplacement. These women livedin a community as if men did notexist, as if God had not createdmen to be their masters. Theywere complete to themselves andruled by a girl. It was againsteverything he had observed andeverything he had been taughtand it seemed to him no wonderat all that everything had gonewrong. As Luca was waiting for hishorse to be led out, he saw Freizeappear in the archway with hisskewbald cob tacked up, andwatched him haul himself into thesaddle. ‘I ride alone,’ Luca said sharply. ‘You can. I’ll ride alone too,’
  • 198. Freize said equably. ‘I don’t want you with me.’ ‘I won’t be with you.’ ‘Ride in the other directionthen.’ ‘Just as you say.’ Freize paused, tightened hisgirth, and went through the gate,bowing with elaborate courtesy tothe old porteress who scowled athim, and then he waited outsidethe gate for Luca to come trottingthrough. ‘I told you, I don’t want youriding with me.’ ‘Which is why I waited,’ Freizeexplained patiently. ‘To see whatdirection you were going in, sothat I could make sure I took theopposite one. But of course, theremay be wolves, or thieves,highwaymen or brigands, so Idon’t mind your company for the
  • 199. first hour or so.’ ‘Just shut up and let me think,’Luca said ungraciously. ‘Not a word,’ Freize remarked tohis horse, who flickered a brownear at him. ‘Silent as the grave.’ He actually managed to keephis silence for several hours asthey rode north, at a hard paceaway from the abbey, from CastleLucretili, and the little village thatsheltered beneath its walls. Theytook a broad smooth track withmatted grass growing down themiddle and Luca put his horse in acanter, hardly seeing the oddfarmhouse, the scattering flock ofsheep, the carefully tended vines.But then, as it grew hottertowards midday, Luca drew up hishorse, suddenly realising that theywere some way from the abbey,and said, ‘I suppose we should be
  • 200. heading back.’ ‘Maybe you’d like a drop ofsmall ale and a speck of breadand ham first?’ Freize offeredinvitingly. ‘Do you have that?’ ‘In my pack. Just in case we gotto this very point and thought wemight like a drop of small ale anda bite to eat.’ Luca grinned. ‘Thank you,’ hesaid. ‘Thank you for bringing food,and thank you for coming withme.’ Freize nodded smugly, and ledthe way off the road into a smallcopse where they would besheltered from the sun. Hedismounted from his cob andslung the reins loosely over thesaddle. The horse immediatelydropped its head and started tograze the thin grass of the forest
  • 201. floor. Freize spread his cape forLuca to sit, and unpacked a stonejug of small ale, and two loaves ofbread. The two men ate insilence, then Freize produced, witha flourish, a half bottle ofexquisitely good red wine. ‘This is excellent,’ Lucaobserved. ‘Best in the house,’ Freizeanswered, draining the very dregs. Luca rose, brushed off thecrumbs, and took up the reins ofhis horse, which he had loopedover a bush. ‘Horses could do with wateringbefore we go back,’ Freizeremarked. The two young men led thehorses back along the track, andthen mounted up to head forhome. They rode for some timeuntil they heard the noise of a
  • 202. stream, off to their left, deeper inthe forest. They broke off from thetrack and, guided by the noise ofrunning water, first found theirway to a broad stream, and thenfollowed it downhill to where itformed a wide deep pool. Thebank was muddy and well-trodden, as if many people camehere for water, an odd sight in thedeserted forest. Luca could seethe marks in the mud of thewooden pattens that the nunswore over their shoes when theywere working in the abbeygardens and fields. Freize slipped, nearly losing hisfooting, and exclaimed as he sawthat he had stepped in a darkgreen puddle of goose-shit. ‘Lookat that! Damned bird. I wouldsnare and eat him, I would.’ Luca took both horses’ reins and
  • 203. let them drink from the water asFreize bent to wipe his boot with adock leaf. ‘Well, I’ll be . . . !’ ‘What is it?’ Wordlessly, Freize held out theleaf with the dirt on it. ‘What?’ asked Luca, leaningaway from the offering. ‘Look closer. People always saythat there’s money where muck is– and here it is. Look closer, for Ithink I have made my fortune!’ Luca looked closer. Speckledamong the dark green of thegoose-shit were tiny grains ofsand, shining brightly. ‘What is it?’ ‘It’s gold, little lord!’ Freize wasbubbling with delight. ‘See it?Goose feeds on the reeds in theriver, the river water is carryingtiny grains of gold washed out of aseam somewhere in the mountain,
  • 204. probably nobody knows where.Goose eats it up, passes it out, Ifind it on my boot. All I need to donow is to find out who owns thelands around the stream, buy it offthem for pennies, pan for gold,and I am a lord myself and shallride a handsome horse and ownmy own hounds!’ ‘If the landlord will sell,’ Lucacautioned him. ‘And I think we arestill on the lands of the Lord ofLucretili. Perhaps he would like topan for his own gold.’ ‘I’ll buy it from him withouttelling him,’ Freize exulted. ‘I’ll tellhim I want to live by the stream.I’ll tell him I have a vocation, likethat poor lass, his sister. I’ll tellhim I have a calling, I want to bea holy hermit and live by the pooland pray all day.’ Luca laughed aloud at the
  • 205. thought of Freize’s vocation forsolitary prayer but suddenly Freizeheld up his hand. ‘Someone’scoming,’ he warned. ‘Hush, let’sget ourselves out of the way.’ ‘Why should we hide? We’redoing no harm.’ ‘You never know,’ Freizewhispered. ‘And I’d rather not befound by a gold-bearing stream.’ The two of them backed theirhorses deeper into the forest, offthe path, and waited. Luca threwhis cape over his horse’s head sothat it would make no noise, andFreize reached up to his cob’s earand whispered one word to it. Thehorse bent his head and stoodquietly. The two men watchedthrough the trees as half a dozennuns wearing their dark brownworking robes wound their wayalong the path, their wooden
  • 206. pattens squelching in the mud.Freize gently gripped the nose ofhis horse so that it did not whinny. The last two nuns were leadinga little donkey, its back piled highwith dirty fleeces from thenunnery flock. As Freize and Lucawatched through the shelteringbushes, the women pegged thefleeces down in the stream, forthe waters to rinse them clean,and then turned the donkey roundand went back the way they hadcome. Obedient to their vows,they worked in silence, but asthey led the little donkey awaythey struck up a psalm and thetwo young men could hear themsinging: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I’llnot want . . .’ ‘I’ll not want,’ Freize muttered,as the two emerged from hiding.
  • 207. ‘Damn. Damn “I’ll not want”indeed! Because I will want. I dowant. And I will go on wanting,wanting and dreaming and alwaysdisappointed.’ ‘Why?’ Luca asked. ‘They’re justwashing the fleeces. You can stillbuy your stream and pan for gold.’ ‘Not them,’ Freize said. ‘Notthem, the cunning little vixens.They’re not washing the fleeces.Why come all this way just towash fleeces, when there are halfa dozen streams between hereand the abbey? No, they’repanning for gold in the old way.They put the fleeces in the stream– see how they’ve pegged themout all across the stream so thewater flows through? The staple ofthe wool catches the grains ofgold, catches even the smallestdust. In a week or so, they’ll come
  • 208. back and pull out their harvest:wet fleeces, heavy with gold.They’ll take them back to theabbey, dry them, brush out thegold dust and there they are witha fortune on the floor! Littlethieves!’ ‘How much would it be worth?’Luca demanded. ‘How much goldwould a fleece of wool hold?’ ‘And why has no-one mentionedthis little business of theirs?’Freize demanded. ‘I wonder if theLord of Lucretili knows? It’d be agood joke on him if he put hissister in the nunnery only for herto steal his fortune from under hisnose, using the very nuns he gaveher to rule.’ Luca looked blankly at Freize.‘What?’ ‘I was jesting . . .’ ‘No, it might not be a joke.
  • 209. What if she came here and foundthe gold, just like you did, and setthe nuns to work. And thenthought that she would make outthat the nunnery had fallen intosin, so that no-one came to visitany more, so that no-one wouldtrust the word of the nuns . . .’ ‘Then she wouldn’t be caught inher little enterprise and, thoughshe’d still be a Lady Abbess, shecould live like a lady once more,’Freize finished. ‘Happy all the daylong, rolling in gold dust.’ ‘I’ll be damned,’ Luca saidheavily. He and Freize stood insilence for a long moment, andthen Luca turned without anotherword, mounted his horse andkicked it into a canter. He realisedas he rode that he was not justshocked by the massive crime thatthe whole nunnery was
  • 210. undertaking, but personallyoffended by the Lady Abbess – asif he thought he could have doneanything to help her! As if hispromise to help her had meantanything to her! As if she hadwanted anything from him but hisnaïve trust, and his faith in herstory. ‘Damn!’ he said again. They rode in silence, Freizeshaking his head over the loss ofhis imaginary fortune, Luca ragingat being played as a fool. As theydrew near to the nunnery, Lucatightened his reins and pulled hishorse up until Freize drew level.‘You truly think it is her? Becauseshe struck me as a most unhappywoman, a grieving daughter – shewas sincere in her grief for herfather, I am sure of that. And yetto face me and lie to me abouteverything else . . . do you think
  • 211. she is capable of such dishonesty?I can’t see it.’ ‘They might be doing it behindher back,’ Freize conceded.‘Though the madness in thenunnery is a good way of keepingstrangers away. But I suppose shemight be in ignorance of it all.We’d have to know who takes thegold to be sold. That’s how you’dknow who was taking the fortune.And we’d have to know if it wasgoing on before she got here.’ Luca nodded. ‘Say nothing toBrother Peter.’ ‘The spy,’ supplemented Freizecheerfully. ‘But tonight we will break intothe storeroom and see if we canfind any evidence: any dryingfleeces, any gold.’ ‘No need to break in, I have thekey.’
  • 212. ‘How did you get that?’ ‘How did you think you got suchsuperb wine after dinner?’ Luca shook his head at hisservant, and then said quietly,‘We’ll meet at two of the clock.’ The two young men rode ontogether and, behind them,making no more sound than thetrees that sighed in the wind, theslave Ishraq watched them go.Isolde was in her bed, tied like aprisoner to the four posts, her feetstrapped at the bottom, her twohands lashed to the two upperposts of the headboard. Ishraqpulled the covers up under herchin and smoothed them flat. ‘Ihate to see you like this. It is
  • 213. beyond bearing. For your ownGod’s sake tell me that we canleave this place. I cannot tie youto your bed like somemadwoman.’ ‘I know,’ Isolde replied, ‘but Ican’t risk walking in my sleep. Ican’t bear it. I will not have thismadness descend on me. Ishraq, Iwon’t walk in the night, screamout in dreams. If I go mad, if Ireally go mad, you will have to killme. I cannot bear it.’ Ishraq leaned down and put herbrown cheek to the other girl’spale face. ‘I never would. I nevercould. We will fight this, and wewill defeat them.’ ‘What about the inquirer?’ ‘He is talking to all of thesisters, he is learning far toomuch. His report will destroy thisabbey, will ruin your good name.
  • 214. Everything they tell him blamesus, names you, dates the start ofthe troubles to the time when wearrived. We have to get hold ofhim. We have to stop him.’ ‘Stop him?’ she asked. Ishraq nodded, her face grim.‘We have to stop him, one way oranother. We have to do whateverit takes to stop him.’The moon was up, but it was ahalf moon hidden behind scuddingclouds and shedding little light asLuca went quietly across thecobbled yard. He saw a shadowyfigure step out of the darkness:Freize. In his hand he had the keyready, oiled to make no sound,and slid it quietly in the lock. The
  • 215. door creaked as Luca pushed itopen and both men froze at thesound, but no-one stirred. All thenarrow windows that faced overthe courtyard were dark, apartfrom the window of the LadyAbbess’s house, where a candleburned, but other than thatflickering light, there was no signthat she was awake. The two young men slipped intothe storeroom and closed the doorquietly behind them. Freize strucka spark from a flint, blew a flame,lit a tallow candle taken from hispocket, and they looked around. ‘Wine is over there.’ Freizegestured to a sturdy grille. ‘Key’shidden up high on the wall, anyfool could find it – practically aninvitation. They make their ownwine. Small ale over there, home-brewed too. Foods are over there.’
  • 216. He pointed to the sacks of wheat,rye and rice. Smoked hams intheir linen sleeves hung abovethem, and on the cold inner wallwere racks of round cheeses. Luca was looking around; therewas no sign of the fleeces. Theyducked through an archway to aroom at the back. Here there werepiles of cloth of all different sortsof quality, all in the unbleachedcream that the nuns wore. A pileof brown hessian cloth for theirworking robes was heaped inanother corner. Leather formaking their own shoes, satchels,and even saddlery, was sorted intidy piles according to the grade.A rickety wooden ladder led up tothe half-floor above. ‘Nothing down here,’ Freizeobserved. ‘Next we’ll search the Lady
  • 217. Abbess’s house,’ Luca ruled. ‘Butfirst, I’ll check upstairs.’ He tookthe candle and started up theladder. ‘You wait down here.’ ‘Not without a light,’ pleadedFreize. ‘Just stand still.’ Freize watched the waveringflame go upwards and then stood,nervously, in pitch darkness. Fromabove he heard a suddenstrangled exclamation. ‘What isit?’ he hissed into the darkness.‘Are you all right?’ Just then a cloth was flung overhis head, blinding him, and as heducked down he heard the whistleof a heavy blow in the air abovehim. He flung himself to theground and rolled sideways,shouting a muffled warning assomething thudded against theside of his head. He heard Luca
  • 218. coming quickly down the ladderand then a splintering sound asthe ladder was heaved away fromthe wall. Freize struggled againstthe pain and the darkness, took awickedly placed kick in the belly,heard Luca’s whooping shout ashe fell, and then the terrible thudas he hit the stone floor. Freize,gasping for breath, called out forhis master, but there was nothingbut silence.Both young men lay still for longfrightening moments in thedarkness, then Freize sat up,pulled the hood from his head,and patted himself all over. Hishand came away wet from hisface; he was bleeding from
  • 219. forehead to chin. ‘Are you there,Sparrow?’ he asked hoarsely. He was answered by silence.‘Dearest saints, don’t say she haskilled him,’ he moaned. ‘Not thelittle lord, not the changeling boy!’ He got to his hands and kneesand crawled his way around,feeling across the floor, bumpinginto the heaped piles of cloth, ashe quartered the room. It tookhim painful stumbling minutes tobe sure: Luca was not in thestoreroom at all. Luca was gone. ‘Fool that I am, why did I notlock the door behind me?’ Freizemuttered remorsefully to himself.He staggered to his feet and felthis way round the wall, past thebroken stair, to the opening.There was a little light in the frontstoreroom, for the door was wide
  • 220. open and the waning moon shonein. As Freize stumbled towards it,he saw the iron grille to the wineand ale cellar stood wide open. Herubbed his bleeding head, leanedfor a moment on the trestle table,and went on towards the light. Ashe reached the doorway, theabbey bell rang for Lauds and herealised he had been unconsciousfor perhaps half an hour. He was setting out for thechapel to raise the alarm for Lucawhen he saw a light at thehospital window. He turnedtowards it, just as the LadyAlmoner came hastily out into theyard. ‘Freize! Is that you?’ He stumbled towards her, andsaw her recoil as she saw hisbloodstained face. ‘Saints save us!What has happened to you?’ ‘Somebody hit me,’ Freize said
  • 221. shortly. ‘I have lost the little lord!Raise the alarm, he can’t be far.’ ‘I have him! I have him! He is ina stupor,’ she said. ‘Whathappened to him?’ ‘Praise God you have him.Where was he?’ ‘I found him staggering in theyard just now on my way toLauds. When I got him into theinfirmary he fainted. I was comingto wake you and Brother Peter.’ ‘Take me to him.’ She turned, and Freizestaggered after her into the longlow room. There were about tenbeds arranged on both sides ofthe room, poor pallet beds ofstraw with unbleached sackingthrown over them. Only one wasoccupied. It was Luca – deathlypale, eyes shut, breathing lightly. ‘Dearest saints!’ Freize
  • 222. murmured, in an agony of anxiety.‘Little lord, speak to me!’ Slowly Luca opened his hazeleyes. ‘Is that you?’ ‘Praise God, it is. Thank OurLady that it is, as ever it was.’ ‘I heard you shout and then Ifell down the stairs,’ he said, hisspeech muffled by the bruise onhis mouth. ‘I heard you come down like asack of potatoes,’ confirmedFreize. ‘Dearest saints, when Iheard you hit the floor! Andsomeone hit me . . .’ ‘I feel like the damned in hell.’ ‘Me too.’ ‘Sleep then, we’ll talk in themorning.’ Luca closed his eyes. The LadyAlmoner approached. ‘Let mebathe your wounds.’ She washolding a bowl with a white linen
  • 223. cloth, and there was a scent oflavender and crushed leaves ofarnica. Freize allowed himself tobe persuaded onto another bed. ‘Were you attacked in yourbeds?’ she asked him. ‘How didthis happen?’ ‘I don’t know,’ Freize said, toostunned by the blow to makeanything up. Besides, she couldsee the open door to thestoreroom as well as he, and shehad found Luca in the yard. ‘I can’tremember anything,’ he saidlamely and, as she dabbed andexclaimed at the bruises andscratches on his face, he stretchedout under the luxury of a woman’scare, and fell fast asleep.
  • 224. Freize woke to a very grey colddawn. Luca was snoring slightly onthe opposite bed, a little snufflefollowed by a long relaxed whistle.Freize lay listening to thepenetrating noise for some timebefore he opened his eyes, andthen he blinked and raised himselfup onto his arm. He could notbelieve what he saw. The bednext to him was now occupied bya nun, laid on her back, her faceas white as her hood, which waspushed back exposing her clammyshaven head. Her fingers,enfolded in a position of prayer onher completely still breast, wereblue, the fingernails rimmed as ifwith ink. But worst of all were hereyes, which were horribly open,the pupils dilated black in black.She was completely still. She wasclearly – even to Freize’s
  • 225. inexperienced frightened stare –dead. A praying nun knelt at her feet,endlessly murmuring the rosary.Another knelt by her head,muttering the same prayers. Thenarrow bed was ringed withcandles, which illuminated thescene like a tableau ofmartyrdom. Freize sat up, certainthat he was dreaming, hoping thathe was dreaming, pinched himselfin the hope of waking, and put hisfeet on the floor, silently cursingthe thudding in his head, notdaring to stand yet. ‘Sister, Godbless you. What happened to thepoor girl?’ The nun at the head of the beddid not speak until she finishedthe prayer but looked at him witheyes that were dark with unshedtears. ‘She died in her sleep,’ she
  • 226. said eventually. ‘We don’t knowwhy.’ ‘Who is she?’ Freize crossedhimself with a suddensuperstitious fear that it was oneof the nuns who had come to giveevidence to their inquiry. ‘Blessher soul and keep her.’ ‘Sister Augusta,’ she said, aname he did not know. He stole a quick glance at thewhite cold face and recoiled fromthe blackness of her dead gaze. ‘Saint’s sake! Why have you notclosed her eyes and weightedthem?’ ‘They won’t close,’ the nun atthe foot of the bed said,trembling. ‘We have tried andtried. They won’t close.’ ‘They must do! Why would theynot?’ She spoke in a low monotone:
  • 227. ‘Her eyes are black because shewas dreaming of Death again. Shewas always dreaming of Death.And now He has come for her. Herdark eyes are filled with that lastvision, of Him coming for her.That’s why they won’t close, that’swhy they are as black as jet. Ifyou look deeply into her terribleblack eyes you will see Deathhimself reflected in them like amirror. You will see the face ofDeath looking out at you.’ The first nun let out a little wail,a cold keening noise. ‘He willcome for us all,’ she whispered. They both crossed themselvesand returned to their mutteredprayers as Freize shuddered andbowed his head in a prayer for thedead. Gingerly, he got up and,gritting his teeth against hisswimming head, walked cautiously
  • 228. around the nuns to the bed whereLuca still snored. He shook hisshoulder: ‘Little lord, wake up.’ ‘I wish you wouldn’t call methat,’ said Luca groggily. ‘Wake up, wake up. One of thenuns is dead.’ Luca sat up abruptly then heldhis head and swayed. ‘Was sheattacked?’ Freize nodded at the prayingnuns. ‘They say she died in hersleep.’ ‘Can you see?’ Luca whispered. Freize shook his head. ‘She hasno head wound, I can’t seeanything else.’ ‘What do they say?’ Luca’s nodindicated the praying nuns whohad returned to their devotions.To his surprise, he saw Freizeshiver as if a cold wind hadtouched him.
  • 229. ‘They don’t make any sense,’Freize said, denying the thoughtthat Death was coming for themall. Just then, the door opened andthe Lady Almoner came in, leadingfour lay sisters. The nuns at thehead and foot of the corpse roseup and stood aside as the womenin brown robes carefully lifted thelifeless body onto a roughstretcher, and took it through anarched stone doorway into theneighbouring room. ‘They will dress her and prepareher for burial tomorrow,’ the LadyAlmoner said in reply to Luca’squestioning glance. She was whitewith strain and fatigue. The nunstook their candles and went tokeep their vigil in the cold outerroom. Luca saw their shadowsjump huge on the stone walls,
  • 230. black as big monsters, as they setdown their lights and knelt topray, then someone closed thedoor on them. ‘What happened to her?’ heasked quietly. ‘She died in her sleep,’ the LadyAlmoner said. ‘God alone knowswhat is happening here. Whenthey went to wake her early, forshe was to serve at Prime, shewas gone. She was cold and stiffand her eyes were fixed open.Who knows what she saw ordreamed, or what came totorment her?’ Quickly she crossedherself and put her hand to thesmall gold cross that hung from agold chain on her belt. She came closer to Luca andlooked into his eyes. ‘And you? Areyou dizzy? Or faint?’ ‘I’ll live,’ he said wryly.
  • 231. ‘I’m faint,’ Freize volunteeredhopefully. ‘I’ll get you some small ale,’ shesaid, and poured some from apitcher. She handed them both acup. ‘Did you see your assassin?’ ‘Assassin.’ Freize repeated theword, strange to him, whichusually meant a hired Arab killer. ‘Whoever it was who tried to killyou,’ she amended. ‘And anyway,what were you doing in thestoreroom?’ ‘I was searching for something,’Luca said evasively. ‘Will you takeme there now?’ ‘We should wait for sunrise,’ shereplied. ‘You have the keys?’ ‘I don’t know . . .’ ‘Then Freize will let us in withhis key.’ The look she gave Freize was
  • 232. very cold. ‘You have a key to mystoreroom?’ Freize nodded, his face a pictureof guilt. ‘Just for essentialsupplies. So as not to be anuisance.’ ‘I don’t think you are wellenough to walk over there,’ shesaid to Luca. ‘Yes I am,’ he said. ‘We have togo.’ ‘The stair is broken.’ ‘Then we’ll get a ladder.’ She realised that he wouldinsist. ‘I’m afraid. To be honest, Iam afraid to go.’ ‘I understand,’ Luca said with aquick smile. ‘Of course you are.Terrible things happened lastnight. But you have to be brave.You will be with us and we won’tbe caught like fools again. Takecourage, come on.’
  • 233. ‘Can we not go after sunrise,when it is fully light?’ ‘No,’ he said gently. ‘It has to benow.’ She bit her lip. ‘Very well,’ shesaid. ‘Very well.’ She lifted a torch from thesconce in the wall and led the wayacross the courtyard to thestorerooms. Someone had closedthe door and she opened it, andstood back to let them go in. Thewooden ladder was still on thefloor, where it had been throwndown. Freize lifted it back intoplace, and shook it to make surethat it was firm. ‘This time, I’ll lockthe door behind us,’ he remarked,and turned the key and lockedthem in. ‘Oh, she can get through alocked door,’ the Lady Almonersaid with a frightened little laugh.
  • 234. ‘I think she can go through walls. Ithink she can go anywhere shewishes.’ ‘Who can?’ Luca demanded. She shrugged. ‘Go on up, I willtell you everything. I will keep nomore secrets. A nun has diedunder this roof, in our care. Thetime has come for you to knoweverything that has been donehere. And you must stop it. Youmust stop her. I have been drivenfar beyond defending thisnunnery, far beyond defendingthis Lady Abbess. I will tell youeverything now. But first you shallsee what she has done.’ Luca went carefully up thesteps, the Lady Almoner following,holding her robe out of the way asshe climbed. Freize stood at thebottom with the torch, lightingtheir way.
  • 235. It was dark in the loft, but theLady Almoner crossed to the farwall and threw open the half-door,for the dawn light. The beamsfrom the rising sun poured into theloft through the opening andshone on glistening fleeces ofgold, hanging up to dry, as thegold dust sifted through the woolto fall onto the linen sheetsspread on the floor below. Theroom was like a treasure chamber,with gold dust underfoot andgolden fleeces hanging likepriceless washing on the bowedlines. ‘Good God,’ Luca whispered. ‘Itis so. The gold . . .’ He lookedaround as if he could not believewhat he was seeing. ‘So much! Sobright!’ She sighed. ‘It is. Have youseen enough?’
  • 236. He bent and took a pinch of thedust. Here and there were littlenuggets of gold, like grit. ‘Howmuch? How much is this worth?’ ‘She harvests a couple of fleecesa month,’ the Lady Almoner said.‘If she is allowed to continue it willadd up to a fortune.’ ‘How long has this been goingon?’ She closed the half-door to shutout the sunlight, and barred it.‘Ever since the Lady Abbess came.She knows the land, being broughtup here; she knows it better thanher brother, for he was sent awayfor his education while she stayedat home with their father. Thestream belongs to our abbey, it isin our woods. Her slave, being aMoor, knew how her people panfor gold and she taught the sistersto peg out the fleeces in the
  • 237. stream, telling them it wouldclean the wool. They have no ideawhat they are doing, she playsthem for fools – she told themthat the stream has specialpurifying qualities for the wool,and they know no better. Theypeg out the fleeces in the streamand bring them back here to dry;they never see them drying outand the gold pattering down onthe linen sheets. The slave comesin secretly to sweep up the golddust, takes it to sell, and thesisters come in when the gold isgone and the loft is empty, andtake the fleeces away to card andspin.’ She laughed bitterly.‘Sometimes they remark how softthe wool is. They are fools for her.She has made fools of us all.’ ‘The slave brings the money toyou? For the abbey?’
  • 238. The Lady Almoner turned to godown the ladder. ‘What do youthink? Does this look like an abbeythat is rich in its own gold? Haveyou seen my infirmary? Have youseen any costly medicines? Youhave seen my storeroom, I know.Do we seem wealthy to you?’ ‘Where does she sell it? Howdoes she sell the gold?’ The Lady Almoner shrugged. ‘Idon’t know. Rome, I suppose. Iknow nothing about it. She sendsthe slave in secret.’ Luca hesitated, briefly, as ifthere were something more hewould ask, but then he turned andwent down after her, ignoring thebruise on his shoulder and thepain in his neck. ‘You are sayingthat the Lady Abbess uses thenuns to pan for gold and keepsthe money for herself?’
  • 239. She nodded. ‘You have seen itfor yourself now. And I think shehopes to close the nunneryaltogether. I believe that sheplans to open a gold mine here,on our fields. I think she isdeliberately leading the nunneryinto disgrace so that yourecommend it should be closeddown. When it is abolished as anunnery she will say she is freefrom her father’s will. She willrenounce her vows, she will claimit as her inheritance from herfather, she will continue to livehere, and she and the slave willbe left here alone.’ ‘Why didn’t you tell me thisbefore?’ Luca demanded. ‘When Iopened the inquiry? Why keep thisback?’ ‘Because this place is my life,’she said fiercely. ‘It has been a
  • 240. beacon on the hill, a refuge forwomen and a place to serve God.I hoped that the Lady Abbesswould learn to live here in peace.I thought God would call her, thather vocation would grow. Then Ihoped that she would be satisfiedwith making a fortune here. Ithought she might be an evilwoman, but that we might containher. But since a nun has died – inour care—’ She choked on a sob.‘Sister Augusta, one of the mostinnocent and simple women whohas been here for years—’ Shebroke off. ‘Well, now it is all over,’ shesaid with dignity. ‘I can’t hidewhat she is doing. She is usingthis place of God to hide herfortune-hunting, and I believe thather slave is practising witchcrafton the nuns. They dream, they
  • 241. sleepwalk, they show strangesigns, and now one has died in hersleep. Before God, I believe thatthe Lady Abbess and her slave aredriving us all mad so that they canget at the gold.’ Her hand sought the cross ather waist and Luca saw her hold ittightly, as if it were a talisman. ‘I understand,’ he said, ascalmly as he could, though hisown throat was dry withsuperstitious fear. ‘I have beensent here to end these heresies,these sins. I am authorised by thePope himself to inquire and judge.There is nothing that I will not seewith my own eyes. There isnothing I will not question. Laterthis morning I will speak to theLady Abbess again and, if shecannot explain herself, I will seethat she is dismissed from her
  • 242. post.’ ‘Sent away from here?’ He nodded. ‘And the gold? You will let theabbey keep the gold so that wecan feed the poor and establish alibrary? Be a beacon on the hill forthe benighted?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘The abbey shouldhave its fortune.’ He saw her face light up withjoy. ‘Nothing matters more thanthe abbey,’ she assured him. ‘Youwill let my sisters stay here andlive their former lives, their holylives? You will put them under thediscipline of a good woman, a newLady Abbess who can commandthem and guide them?’ ‘I will put it under the charge ofthe Dominican brothers,’ Lucadecided. ‘And they will harvest thegold from the stream and endow
  • 243. the abbey. This is no longer ahouse in the service of God, as ithas been suborned. I will put itunder the control of men, therewill be no Lady Abbess. The goldshall be restored to God, theabbey to the brothers.’ She gave a shuddering sigh andhid her face in her hands. Lucastretched his hand towards her tocomfort her and only a warningglance from Freize reminded himthat she was still in holy ordersand he should not touch her. ‘What will you do?’ Luca askedquietly. ‘I don’t know. My whole life hasbeen here. I will serve as LadyAlmoner until we come under thecommand of the Brothers. Theywill need me for the first months,no-one but me knows how thisplace is run. Then perhaps I will
  • 244. ask if I may go to another order. Iwould like an order that was moreenclosed, more at peace. Thesehave been terrible days. I want togo to an order where the vows arekept more strictly.’ ‘Poverty?’ Freize asked atrandom. ‘You want to be poor?’ She nodded. ‘An order thatrespects the commands, an orderwith more simplicity. Knowing thatwe were storing a fortune of goldin our own loft . . . not knowingwhat the Lady Abbess was doingor what she intended, fearing shewas serving the Devil himself . . .it has been heavy on myconscience.’ The bell tolled the call tochapel, echoing in the morning air.‘Prime,’ she said. ‘I have to go tochurch. The sisters need to seeme there.’
  • 245. ‘We’ll come too,’ Luca said. They closed the door to thestoreroom and locked it behindthem. While Luca watched, sheturned to Freize and held out herhand for his key. Luca smiled ather simple dignity as she stoodstill while Freize patted hispockets in a pantomime ofsearching, and then, reluctantly,handed over the key. ‘Thank you,’she said. ‘If you want anythingfrom the abbey stores you maycome to me.’ Freize gave a funny little mockbow, as if to recognise herauthority. She turned to Luca. ‘Icould be the new Lady Abbess,’she said quietly. ‘You couldrecommend me for the post. Theabbey would be safe in mykeeping.’ Before he could answer she
  • 246. looked beyond him at thewindows of the hospital, suddenlypaused, and put her hand onLuca’s sleeve. At once he froze,acutely aware of her touch. Freizebehind him stopped still. She heldher finger to her lips for silenceand then slowly pointed ahead.She was indicating the mortuarybeside the hospital, where a littlelight gleamed from the slattedshutters, and they could seesomeone moving. ‘What is it?’ Luca whispered.‘Who is in there?’ ‘The lights should be shielded,and the nuns should be still andsilent in their vigil,’ she breathed.‘But someone is moving in there.’ ‘The sisters, washing her?’ Lucaasked. ‘They should have finished theirwork.’
  • 247. Quietly, the three of themmoved across the yard and lookedin the open door to the hospital.The door leading from the hospitalward through to the mortuary wasfirmly closed. The Lady Almonerstepped back, as if she were tooafraid to go further. ‘Is there another way in?’ ‘They take the pauper coffinsout through a back door, to thestables,’ she whispered. ‘That doormay be unbolted.’ Quickly, they crossed the stableyard to the double door to themortuary, big enough for a cartand a horse, barred by a thickbeam of wood. The two youngmen silently lifted the beam fromits sockets and the door stoodclosed, held shut only by its ownweight. Freize lifted a usefulpitchfork from the nearby wall,
  • 248. and Luca bent and took his daggerfrom the scabbard in his boot. ‘When I give the word, open itquickly,’ he said to the LadyAlmoner. She nodded, her face aswhite as her veil. ‘Now!’ The Lady Almoner flung thedoor open, the two young menrushed into the room, weapons atthe ready – then fell back inhorror. Before them was a nightmarescene, like a butcher’s shop, withthe butcher and his lad workingover a fresh carcass. But it wasworse by far than that. It was nota butcher, and it was no animal onthe slab. The Lady Abbess was ina brown working gown, her headtied in a scarf, and Ishraq was inher usual black robe covered witha white apron. The two girls had
  • 249. their sleeves rolled up, and werebloodstained to the elbows,standing over the dead body ofSister Augusta, Ishraq wielding abloodied knife in her hand,disembowelling the dead girl. Thenuns keeping vigil were nowhereto be seen. As the men burst in,the two young women looked upand froze, the knife poised abovethe open belly of the dead nun,blood on their aprons, blood onthe bed, blood on their hands. ‘Step back,’ Luca ordered, hisvoice ice-cold with shock. Hepointed his dagger at Ishraq, wholooked to the Lady Abbess for hercommand. Freize raised hispitchfork as if he would spear heron the tines. ‘Step back from that body, andno-one will be hurt,’ Luca said.‘Leave this – whatever it is that
  • 250. you are doing.’ He could not bearto look, he could not find thewords to name it. ‘Leave it, andstep against the wall.’ He heard the Lady Almonercome in behind him and her gaspof horror at the butchery beforethem. ‘Merciful God!’ Shestaggered and he heard her leanagainst the wall, then retch. ‘Get a rope,’ Freize said, withoutturning his head to her. ‘Get tworopes. And fetch Brother Peter.’ She choked back her nausea.‘What in the name of God are youdoing? Lady Abbess, answer me!What are you doing to her?’ ‘Go,’ said Luca. ‘Go at once.’ They heard her running feetcross the cobbles of the stableyard as the Lady Abbess raisedher eyes to Luca. ‘I can explainthis,’ she said.
  • 251. He nodded, gripping the dagger.Clearly, nothing could explain thisscene: her sleeves rolled to herelbows, her hands stained redwith the blood of a dead nun. ‘I believe that this woman hasbeen poisoned,’ she said. ‘Myfriend is a physician—’ ‘Can’t be,’ Freize said quietly. ‘She is,’ the Lady Abbessinsisted. ‘We . . . we decided tocut open her belly and see whatshe had been fed.’ ‘They were eating her.’ TheLady Almoner’s voice trembledfrom the doorway. She came backinto the room, Brother Peterwhite-faced behind her. ‘The twoof them were eating her in aSatanic Mass. They were eatingthe body of Sister Augusta. Lookat the blood on their hands. Theywere drinking her blood. The Lady
  • 252. Abbess has gone over to Satanand she and her heretic slave areholding a Devil’s Mass on this, oursanctified ground.’ Luca shuddered and crossedhimself. Brother Peter steppedtowards the slave with a rope heldout before him. ‘Put down theknife and put out your hands,’ hesaid. ‘Give yourself up. In thename of God, I command you,demon or woman or fallen angel,to surrender.’ Holding Freize’s gaze, Ishraqput down the knife on the bedbeside the dead nun, thensuddenly darted for the doorwaythat led into the empty hospital.She flung it open and was throughit, followed in a moment by theLady Abbess. As Luca and Freizeraced after the two young women,she led the way, running across
  • 253. the yard to the main gate. Luca bellowed to the porteress,‘Bar the gate! Stop thief!’ andflung himself on the Lady Abbessas she sprinted ahead of him,bringing her down to the ground ina heavy tackle and knocking theair out of her. As they went down,her veil fell from her head and atumble of blonde hair swept overhis face with the haunting scent ofrosewater. The Moorish slave was half wayup the outer gate now, springingfrom hinge to beam like a litheanimal, as Freize grabbed at herbare feet and missed, and thenleaped up and snatched a handfulof her robe and tore her off thegate, bringing her tumbling downto fall backwards on the stonecobbles with a cry of pain. Freize gripped her arms to her
  • 254. sides so tightly that she couldbarely breathe, while BrotherPeter tied her hands behind herback, roped her feet together, andthen turned to the Lady Abbess,still pinned down by Luca. As Lucadragged her to her feet, holdingher wrists, her thick golden-blondehair tumbled down over hershoulders, hiding her face. ‘Shame!’ the Lady Almonerexclaimed. ‘Her hair!’ Luca could not drag his eyesfrom this girl who had veiled herface from him, and hooded herhair so that he should never knowwhat she looked like. In thegolden light of the rising sun hestared at her, seeing her for thefirst time, her dark blue eyesunder brown up-swinging brows, astraight perfect nose, and a warmtempting mouth. Then Brother
  • 255. Peter came towards them and hesaw her bloodstained hands as theclerk bound them with a rope, andLuca realised that she was a thingof horror, a beautiful thing ofhorror, the worst thing betweenheaven and hell: a fallen angel. ‘The lay sisters will be cominginto the yards to work, the nunswill be coming from church, wemust tidy up,’ the Lady Almonerruled. ‘They cannot see this. It willdistress them beyond anything . . .it will break their hearts. I mustshield them from this evil. Theycannot see Sister Augusta soabused. They cannot see these . .. these . . .’ She could not find thewords for the Lady Abbess and herslave. ‘These devils. Thesemissionaries from hell.’ ‘Do you have a secure room forthem?’ Brother Peter asked. ‘They
  • 256. will have to stand trial. We’ll haveto send for Lord Lucretili. He is thelord of these lands. This is outsideour jurisdiction now. This is acriminal matter, this is a hangingoffence, a burning offence; he willhave to judge.’ ‘The cellar of the gatehouse,’the Lady Almoner repliedpromptly. ‘The only way in or outis a hatch in the floor.’ Freize had the Moorish girl slunglike a sack over his shoulder.Brother Peter took the tied handsof the Lady Abbess and led her tothe gatehouse. Luca was leftalone with the Lady Almoner. ‘What will you do with thebody?’ ‘I will ask the village midwivesto put her into her coffin. Poorchild, I cannot let her sisters seeher. And I will send for the priest
  • 257. to bless what is left of her poorbody. She can lie in the church fornow and then I will ask LordLucretili if she can lie in hischapel. I won’t leave her in themortuary, I won’t have her in ourchapel. As soon as they havecleaned her up and dressed heragain she shall go to sanctifiedground away from here.’ She shuddered and swayed,almost as if she might faint. Lucaput his hand around her waist tosupport her and she leanedtowards him for a moment, restingher head on his shoulder. ‘You were very brave,’ he saidto her. ‘This has been a terribleordeal.’ She looked up at him, and then,as if she had suddenly realisedthat his arm was around her, andthat she was leaning against him,
  • 258. he felt her heart flutter like acaptured bird and she steppedaway. ‘Forgive me,’ she said. ‘I amnot allowed . . .’ ‘I know,’ he said quickly. ‘It isfor you to forgive me. I should nothave touched you.’ ‘It has been so shocking . . .’There was a tremble in her voicethat she could not conceal. Luca put his hands behind hisback so that he would not reachfor her again. ‘You must rest,’ hesaid helplessly. ‘This has been toomuch for any woman.’ ‘I can’t rest,’ she said brokenly.‘I must put things to rights here. Icannot let my sisters see thisterrible sight, or find out what hasbeen done here. I will fetch thewomen to clean up. I must makeeverything right again. I willcommand them, I will lead them,
  • 259. out of error into the ways ofrighteousness; out of darknessinto light.’ She smoothed her robeand shook it out. Luca heard theseductive whisper of her silk shift,and then she turned away fromhim to go to her work. At the door of the hospital shepaused and glanced back. Shesaw that he was looking after her.‘Thank you,’ she said, with a tinysmile. ‘No man has ever held me,not in all my life before. I am gladto know a man’s kindness. I willlive here all my life, I will live hereinside this order, perhaps as theLady Abbess, and yet I will alwaysremember this.’ He almost stepped towards heras she held his gaze for just amoment and then was gone. Freize and Brother Peter joinedLuca in the cobbled yard. ‘Are they
  • 260. secure?’ Luca asked. ‘Regular gaol they have there,’Freize remarked. ‘There werechains fixed on the wall,handcuffs, manacles. He insistedthat we put everything on them,and I hammered them on as ifthey were both slaves.’ ‘Just till the Lord Lucretili getshere,’ Brother Peter replieddefensively. ‘And if we had leftthem in ropes and they had gotthemselves free, what would wehave done?’ ‘Caught them again when weopened the hatch?’ Freizesuggested. To Luca he said,‘They’re in a round cave, no wayin or out except a hatch in the roofand they can’t reach that until it isopened and a wooden ladderlowered in. They aren’t even stonewalls, the cellar is dug down into
  • 261. solid rock. They’re secure as a pairof mice in a trap. But he had toput them in irons as if they werepirates.’ Luca looked at his new clerkand saw that the man was deeplyafraid of the mystery and theterrible nature of the two women.‘You were right to be cautious,’ hesaid, reassuringly. ‘We don’t knowwhat powers they have.’ ‘Good God, when I saw themwith blood up to the elbows, andthey looked at us, their faces asinnocent as scholars at a desk!What were they doing? WhatSatan’s work were they doing?Was it a Mass? Were they reallyeating her flesh and drinking herblood in a Satanic Mass?’ ‘I don’t know,’ Luca said. He puthis hand to his head. ‘I can’t think. . .’
  • 262. ‘Now look at you!’ Freizeexclaimed. ‘You should still be inbed, and the Lord knows I feelbadly myself. I’ll take you back tothe hospital and you can rest.’ Luca recoiled. ‘Not there,’ hesaid. ‘I’m not going back in there.Take me to my room at the priesthouse and I will sleep till LordLucretili gets here. Wake me assoon as he comes.’In the cellar, the two youngwomen were shrouded in darknessas if they were already in theirgrave. It was like being buriedalive. They blinked and strainedtheir eyes but they were blind. ‘I can’t see you,’ Isolde said, hervoice catching on a sob.
  • 263. ‘I can see you.’ The reply camesteadily out of the pitch blackness.‘And anyway, I always know whenyou are near.’ ‘We have to get word to theinquirer. We have to find someway to speak with him.’ ‘I know.’ ‘They will be fetching mybrother. He will put us on trial.’ There was a silence fromIshraq. ‘Ishraq, I should be certain thatmy brother will hear me, that hewill believe what I say, that hewill free me – but more and moredo I think that he has betrayedme. He encouraged the prince tocome to my room, he left me nochoice but to come here as LadyAbbess. What if he has beentrying to drive me away from myhome all along? What if he has
  • 264. been trying to destroy me?’ ‘I think so,’ the other girl saidsteadily. ‘I do think so.’ There was a silence while Isoldeabsorbed the thought. ‘How couldhe be so false? How could he beso wicked?’ The chains clinked as Ishraqshrugged. ‘What shall we do?’ Isolde askedhopelessly. ‘Hush.’ ‘Hush? Why? What are youdoing?’ ‘I am wishing . . .’ ‘Ishraq – we need a plan,wishing won’t save us.’ ‘Let me wish. This is deepwishing. And it might save us.’
  • 265. Luca had thought he would tossand turn with the pain in his neckand shoulder, but as soon as hisboots were off and his head wason the pillow he slipped into adeep sleep. Almost at once hestarted to dream. He dreamed that he wasrunning after the Lady Abbessagain, and she was outpacing himeasily. The ground beneath hisfeet changed from the cobbles ofthe yard to the floor of the forest,and all the leaves were crisp likeautumn, and then he saw theyhad been dipped in gold and hewas running through a forest ofgold. Still she kept ahead of him,weaving in and out of golden treetrunks, passing bushes crustedwith gold, until he managed asudden burst of speed, far fasterthan before, and he leaped
  • 266. towards her, like a mountain lionwill leap on a deer, and caughther around the waist to bring herdown. But as she fell, she turnedin his arms and he saw her smilingas if with desire, as if she had allalong wanted him to catch her, tohold her, to lie foot to foot, legagainst leg, his hard young bodyagainst her lithe slimness, lookinginto her eyes, their faces closeenough to kiss. Her thick mane ofblonde hair swirled around himand he smelt the heady scent ofrosewater again. Her eyes weredark, so dark; he had thought theywere blue so he looked again, butthe blue of her eyes was only atiny rim around the darkness ofthe pupil. Her eyes were sodilated they were not blue butblack. In his head he heard thewords ‘beautiful lady’ and he
  • 267. thought, ‘Yes, she is a beautifullady.’ ‘Bella donna.’ He heard thewords in Latin and it was the voiceof the slave to the Lady Abbesswith her odd foreign accent as sherepeated, with a strange urgency:‘Bella donna! Luca, listen! Belladonna!’ The door to the guest roomopened, as Luca lurched out of hisdream and held his aching head. ‘Only me,’ Freize said, sloppingwarmed small ale out of a jug ashe banged into the room with atray of bread, meat, cheese and amug. ‘Saints, Freize, I am glad thatyou waked me. I have had thestrangest of dreams.’ ‘Me too,’ Freize said. ‘All nightlong I dreamed that I wasgathering berries in the hedgerow,
  • 268. like a gipsy.’ ‘I dreamed of a beautifulwoman, and the words belladonna.’ At once Freize burst into song: ‘Bella donna, give me your love– Bella donna, bright stars above .. .’ ‘What?’ Luca sat himself at thetable and let his servant put thefood before him. ‘It’s a song, a popular song. Didyou never hear it in themonastery?’ ‘We only ever sang hymns andpsalms in the church,’ Lucareminded him. ‘Not love songs inthe kitchen like you.’ ‘Anyway, everyone was singingit last summer. Bella donna:beautiful lady.’ Luca cut himself a slice of meat
  • 269. from the joint, chewedthoughtfully, and drank three deepgulps of small ale. ‘There’sanother meaning of the wordsbella donna,’ he said. ‘It doesn’tjust mean beautiful lady. It’s aplant, a hedgerow plant.’ Freize slapped his head. ‘It’s theplant in my dream! I dreamed Iwas in the hedgerow, looking forberries, black berries; but though Iwanted blackberries or sloeberries or even elderberries, all Icould find was deadly nightshade .. . the black berries of deadlynightshade.’ Luca got to his feet, taking ahunk of the bread in his hand. ‘It’sa poison,’ he said. ‘The LadyAbbess said that they believed thenun was poisoned. She said theywere cutting her open to see whatshe had eaten, what she had in
  • 270. her belly.’ ‘It’s a drug,’ Freize said. ‘Theyuse it in the torture rooms, tomake people speak out, to drivethem mad. It gives the wildestdreams, it could make—’ He brokeoff. ‘It could make a whole nunneryof women go mad,’ Luca finishedfor him. ‘It could make them havevisions, and sleepwalk – it couldmake them dream and imaginethings. And, if you were given toomuch . . . it would kill you.’ Without another word the twoyoung men went to theguesthouse door and walkedquickly to the hospital. In thecentre of the entrance yard the laysisters were making two massivepiles of wood, as if they werepreparing for a bonfire. Freizepaused there, but Luca went past
  • 271. them without a second glance,completely focused on the hospitalwhere he could see through theopen windows, the nursing nunsmoving about setting things torights. Luca went through theopen doors, and looked aroundhim in surprise. It was all as clean and as tidyas if there had never beenanything wrong. The door to themortuary was open and the bodyof the dead nun was gone, thecandles and censers taken away.Half a dozen beds were madeready with clean plain sheets, across hung centrally on the limewashed walls. As Luca stoodthere, baffled, a nun came in witha jug of water in her hand fromthe pump outside, poured it into abowl and went down on her kneesto scrub the floor.
  • 272. ‘Where is the body of the sisterwho died?’ Luca asked. His voicesounded too loud in the emptysilent room. The nun sat back onher heels and answered him. ‘Sheis lying in the chapel. The LadyAlmoner closed the coffin herself,nailed it down and ordered a vigilto be kept in the chapel. Shall Itake you to pray?’ He nodded. There wassomething uncanny about thecomplete restoration of the room.He could hardly believe that hehad burst through that door,chased the Lady Abbess and herslave, knocked her to the groundand sent them chained into awindowless cellar; that he hadseen them, bloodstained to theirelbows, hacking into the body ofthe dead nun. ‘The Lady Almoner said that she
  • 273. is to lie on sacred ground in theLucretili chapel,’ the nunremarked, leading the way out ofthe hospital. ‘Both for her vigil andher burial. The Lord Lucretili is tobring the special coffin carriageand take her to lie for a night inthe castle chapel. Then she’ll beburied in our graveyard. God blessher soul.’ As they went past the piles ofwood, Freize fell into step besideLuca. ‘Pyres,’ he said out of thecorner of his mouth. ‘Two pyresfor two witches. Lord Lucretili ison his way to sit in judgement,but it looks like they have alreadydecided what the verdict will beand are preparing for the sentencealready. These are the stakes andfirewood for burning the witches.’ Luca reeled around, in shock.‘No!’
  • 274. Freize nodded, his face grim.‘Why not? We saw ourselves whatthey were doing. There’s no doubtthey were engaged in witchcraft, aSatanic Mass, or cutting up thebody. Either way it’s a crimepunishable by death. But I will saythat your Lady Almoner doesn’twaste much time in preparation.Here she is with two bonfiresready before the trial has evenstarted.’ The waiting nun tapped herfoot. Luca turned back to her.‘What are these wood piles for?’ ‘I think we are selling thefirewood,’ she said. ‘The LadyAlmoner ordered the lay sisters tomake two piles like this. May Ishow you to the chapel now? Ihave to get back to the hospitaland wash the floor.’ ‘Yes, I am sorry to have delayed
  • 275. you.’ Luca and Freize followed herpast the refectory, through thecloisters to the chapel. As soon asthe nun pushed open the heavywooden door they could hear thelow musical chanting of nunskeeping vigil over the body.Blinking, as their eyes wereblinded by the darkness, theywent slowly up the aisle until theycould see that the space beforethe altar was covered with asnowy white cloth, and on thecloth lay a newly made simplewooden coffin with the lid nailedfirmly shut. Luca grimaced at the sight. ‘Wehave to see the body,’ hewhispered. ‘It’s the only way wecan know if she was poisoned.’ ‘Rather you than me,’ Freizesaid bluntly. ‘I wouldn’t want to
  • 276. tell the Lady Almoner that I’mopening a sanctified coffinbecause I had a funny dream.’ ‘We have to know.’ ‘She won’t want anyone seeingthe body,’ Freize whispered toLuca. ‘She was horribly cut up.And if those witches ate her flesh,then the poor girl will bleed whenshe is resurrected, God help her.The Lady Almoner won’t want thenuns to know that.’ ‘We’ll have to get permissionfrom the priest,’ Luca decided.‘We’d better ask him, not the LadyAlmoner – we’ll give him a requestin writing. Peter can write it.’ They stepped back and watchedthe priest. He had a heavy silvercenser that blew incense smokeall around the coffin. When the airwas chokingly thick with the heavyperfume, he handed it to one of
  • 277. the nuns and then took the holywater from another and dousedthe coffin. Then he went to thealtar and, turning his back onthem all, he lifted his hands inprayer for their departed sister. The two men bowed to thealtar, crossed themselves, andwent quietly out of the church. Atonce they could hear a commotionfrom the stable yard, the sound ofmany horses arriving, and thegreat gates being thrown open. ‘Lord Lucretili,’ Luca guessed,and strode back to the yard. The lord, and patron of theabbey, was mounted on a bigblack warhorse, which pawed theground, its iron horseshoesthrowing sparks from the cobbles.As Luca watched he threw his redleather reins to his pageboy andjumped easily from the saddle.
  • 278. The Lady Almoner went up to him,curtseyed, and then stood quietly,her hands hidden inside her longsleeves, her head bowed, herhood modestly shielding her face. Following Lord Lucretili into thecourtyard came half a dozen menwearing the lord’s livery of anolive bough overlaid with a sword,signifying the peaceful descendantof a crusader knight. Three or fourgrave-looking clerks came in onhorseback, then the Lord Abbot ofLucretili with his own retinue ofpriests. As the men dismounted, Lucastepped forwards. ‘You must be Luca Vero. I amglad you are here,’ Lord Lucretilisaid pleasantly. ‘I am Giorgio, LordLucretili. This is my Lord Abbot.He will sit in judgement with me. Iunderstand you are in the middle
  • 279. of your investigation here?’ ‘I am,’ Luca said. ‘Forgive me,but I have to go to the visitors’house. I am looking for my clerk.’ The Lord Lucretili intervened.‘Fetch the inquirer’s clerk,’ he saidto his pageboy, who set off to thevisitors’ house at a run. The lordturned back to Luca. ‘They tell methat it was you who arrested theLady Abbess, and her slave?’ ‘His own sister,’ Freize breathedfrom behind. ‘Though I mightremark that he doesn’t seem veryupset.’ ‘Myself, my clerk Brother Peter,and my servant Freize, togetherwith the Lady Almoner,’ Lucaconfirmed. ‘Brother Peter and myservant put the two women in thecellar below the gatehouse.’ ‘We’ll hold our trial in the first-floor room of the gatehouse,’ Lord
  • 280. Lucretili decided. ‘That way theycan be brought up the ladder, andwe’ll keep it all out of the way ofthe nunnery.’ ‘I would prefer that,’ the LadyAlmoner said. ‘The fewer peoplewho see them, and know of this,the better.’ The lord nodded. ‘It shames usall,’ he said. ‘God alone knowswhat my father would have madeof it. So let’s get it over and donewith.’ Two black-plumed horses pulleda cart into the yard, and stoodwaiting. ‘For the coffin,’ the lordexplained to Luca. To the LadyAlmoner he said: ‘You’ll see it’sloaded up and my men will take itto my chapel?’ The Lady Almoner nodded, thenturned from the men and led theway to the gatehouse room,
  • 281. where she watched the clerks seta long table and chairs for theLord Lucretili, the Lord Abbot,Luca and Brother Peter. Whilethey were preparing the room,Luca went to Lord Lucretili. ‘I thinkwe need to have the coffin openedbefore Sister Augusta is buried,’he said quietly. ‘I am sorry to saythat I suspect the sister waspoisoned.’ ‘Poisoned?’ Luca nodded. The lord shook his head inshock. ‘God save her soul andforgive my sister her sins. Butanyway, we can’t open the coffinhere. The nuns would be far toodistressed. Come to my castle thisevening and we’ll do it privately atmy chapel. In the meantime, we’llquestion the Lady Abbess and herslave.’
  • 282. ‘They won’t answer,’ Luca saidcertainly. ‘The slave swore shewas dumb in three languageswhen I questioned her before.’ The lord laughed shortly. ‘I thinkthey can be made to answer. Youare an inquirer for the Church, youhave the right to use the rack, thepress, you can bleed them. Theyare only young women, vain andfrail as all women are. You willsee that they will answer yourquestions rather than have theirjoints pulled from the sockets.They will speak rather than haveboulders placed on their chests. Ican promise you that my sisterwill say anything rather than haveleeches on her face.’ Luca went white. ‘That’s nothow I make an inquiry. I havenever . . .’ he started. ‘I wouldnever . . .’
  • 283. The older man put a gentlehand on his shoulder. ‘I will do itfor you,’ he said. ‘You shall wrestlewith them for their souls until theirevil pride has been broken andthey are crying to confess. I haveseen it done, it is easily done. Youcan trust me to make them readyfor their confession.’ ‘I could not allow . . .’ Lucachoked. ‘The room is ready for yourlordship.’ The Lady Almoner cameout from the gatehouse and stoodaside as the lord went in withoutanother word. He seated himselfbehind the table where the greatchair, like a throne, was placedready for him, the Lord Abbot tohis left. Luca was on his right, witha clerk at one end of the table andBrother Peter at the other. Wheneveryone was seated, the lord
  • 284. ordered the door to the yardclosed, and Luca saw Freize’sanxious face peering in, as theLord Lucretili said, ‘My Lord Abbot,will you bless the work that weare doing today?’ The abbot half-closed his eyesand folded his hands over hiscurved stomach. ‘Heavenly Father,bless the work that is done heretoday. May this abbey be purifiedand cleansed of sin and returnedto the discipline of God and man.May these women understandtheir sins and cleanse their heartswith penitence, and may we, theirjudges, be just and righteous inour wrath. May we offer you awilling brand for the burning, Lord,always remembering thatvengeance is not ours; but onlyyours. Amen.’ ‘Amen,’ Lord Lucretili confirmed.
  • 285. He gestured to the two priestswho were standing guard at theouter door. ‘Get them up.’ Brother Peter rose to his feet.‘Freize has the key to the chains,’he said. He opened the door toget the ring of keys from Freize,who was hovering on thethreshold. The men inside thecourtroom could see the stableyard filled with curious faces.Brother Peter closed the door onthe crowd outside, steppedforwards and opened the trap-door set in the woodenfloorboards. Everyone went silentas Brother Peter looked down intothe dark cellar. Leaning againstthe wall of the gatehouse roomwas a rough wooden ladder. Oneof the priests lifted it and loweredit into the darkness of the hole.Everyone hesitated. There was
  • 286. something very forbidding aboutthe deep blackness below, almostas if it were a well, and thewomen far below had beendrowned in the inky waters.Brother Peter handed the keys toLuca, and everyone looked at him.Clearly they were all expectinghim to go down into the darknessand fetch the women up. Luca found that he was chilled,perhaps by a blast of cold air fromthe windowless deep room below.He thought of the two youngwomen down there, chained tothe damp walls, waiting forjudgement, their eyes wide andglassy in the darkness. Heremembered the black glazed lookof the dead nun and thought thatperhaps the Lady Abbess and herMoorish slave would be druggedinto hallucinations too. At the
  • 287. thought of their dark eyes, shiningin the darkness like waiting rats,he got to his feet, determined todelay. ‘I’ll get a torch,’ he said andwent out into the entrance yard. Outside, in the clean air, hesent one of the lord’s servantsrunning for a light. The manreturned with one of the sconcesfrom the refectory burningbrightly. Luca took it in his handand went back into the gatehouse,feeling as if he were about to godeep into an ancient cave to facea monster. He held the torch up high as hestepped on the first rung of theladder. He had to go backwards,and he could not help looking overhis shoulder and down betweenhis feet, trying to see what wasthere waiting for him in thedarkness.
  • 288. ‘Take care!’ Brother Peter said,his voice sharp with warning. ‘What of?’ Luca askedimpatiently, hiding his own fear.Two more rungs of the ladder andhe could see the walls were blackand shiny with damp. The womenwould be chilled, chained downhere in the darkness. Two stepsmore and he could see a little poolof light at the foot of the ladderand his own leaping shadow onthe wall and the shadow of theladder like a black hatched linegoing downwards intonothingness. He was at thebottom rung now. He kept onehand on the rough wood forsafety, as he turned and lookedaround. Nothing. There was nothing there. There was nobody there.
  • 289. He swung the pool of lightahead of him; the stone floor wasempty of anything, and the darkwall just six paces away from himon all sides was blank stone, blackstone. The cellar was empty. Theywere not there. Luca exclaimed and held thetorch higher, looking all around.For a moment he had a terror ofthem making a sudden rush athim out of the darkness, the twowomen freed and dashing at himlike dark devils in hell; but therewas no-one there. His eye caughta glint of metal on the floor. ‘What is it?’ Brother Peterpeered down from the floor above.‘What’s the matter?’ Luca raised the torch high, sothat the beams of light raked thedarkness of the circular room allaround him. Now, he could see
  • 290. the handcuffs and leg-cuffs lyingon the ground, still safely locked,still firmly chained to the wall,intact and undamaged. But of theLady Abbess and the Moorish girlthere was no sign at all. ‘Witchcraft!’ Lord Lucretilihissed, his face as white as asheet, looking down at Luca fromthe floor above. ‘God save us fromthem.’ He crossed himself, kissedhis thumbnail, and crossed himselfagain. ‘The manacles are notbroken?’ ‘No.’ Luca gave them a kick andthey rattled but did not springopen. ‘I locked them myself, I madeno mistake,’ Brother Peter said,scrambling down the ladder andshaking as he tested the chains onthe wall. Luca thrust the torch at Peter
  • 291. and swarmed his way up theladder to the light, obeying apanic-stricken sense that he didnot want to be trapped in the darkcellar from which the women had,so mysteriously, disappeared. LordLucretili took his hand and heavedhim up the last steps and thenstayed hand clasped with him.Luca, feeling his own hands wereicy in the lord’s warm grip, had asense of relief at a human touch. ‘Be of good heart, Inquirer,’ thelord said. ‘For these are dark andterrible days. It must bewitchcraft. It must be so. My sisteris a witch. I have lost her toSatan.’ ‘Where could they have gone?’Luca asked the older man. ‘Anywhere they choose, sincethey got out of locked chains anda closed cellar. They could be
  • 292. anywhere in this world or thenext.’ Brother Peter came up from thedarkness, carrying the torch. Itwas as if he came out of a welland the dark water closed behindhim. He shut the door of thehatch, and stamped the bolt intoplace as if he were afraid of thevery darkness beneath their feet.‘What shall we do now?’ he askedLuca. Luca hesitated, unsure. Heglanced towards Lord Lucretili whosmoothly took command. ‘We’llset a hue and cry for them,naming them as witches, but Idon’t expect them to be found,’the lord ruled. ‘In her absence Ishall declare my sister dead.’ Heturned his head, to hide his grief.‘I can’t even have Masses said forher soul . . . A sainted father and
  • 293. a cursed sister both gone withinfour months. He will never evenmeet her in heaven.’ Luca gave him a moment torecover. ‘Admit the Lady Almoner,’he said to Brother Peter. She was waiting outside thedoor. Luca caught a glimpse ofFreize’s grimace of curiosity as shecame quietly in and closed thedoor behind her. She observed theclosed hatch, and looked to Lucafor an explanation. Carefully, shedid not address the Lord Lucretili.Luca assumed that her vowsforbade anything but the briefestof contact with men who were notalready ordained in thepriesthood. ‘What has happened,my brother?’ she asked himquietly. ‘The accused women aremissing.’
  • 294. Her head jolted up to exchangeone swift glance with LordLucretili. ‘How is it possible?’ shedemanded. ‘These are mysteries,’ Luca saidshortly. ‘My question, though, isthis: now that we have nosuspects, now their guilt isstrongly shown by theirdisappearance, and the way theyhave got away – what is to bedone? Should I continue myinquiry? Or is it closed? You arethe Lady Almoner, and in theabsence of the Lady Abbess youare the senior lady of the abbey.What is your opinion?’ He could see her flush withpleasure that he had consultedher, that he had named her as themost senior woman of the abbey.‘I think you have completed yourinquiry,’ she said quietly to him. ‘I
  • 295. think you have done everythingthat anyone could ask of you. Youfound the very cause of thetroubles here, you proved whatshe was doing, you arrested herand her heretic slave and namedthem as witches, and they arenow gone. Their escape provestheir guilt. Your inquiry is closedand – if God is merciful – thisabbey is cleansed of theirpresence. We can get back tonormal here.’ Luca nodded. ‘You will appoint anew Lady Abbess?’ he asked LordLucretili. The Lady Almoner folded herhands inside her sleeves andlooked down, modestly, at thefloor. ‘I would.’ He paused, still veryshaken. ‘If there was anyone Icould trust to take the place of
  • 296. such a false sister! When I think ofthe damage that she might havedone!’ ‘What she did!’ the LadyAlmoner reminded him. ‘Thehouse destroyed and distracted,one nun dead—’ ‘Is that all she has done?’ Lucainquired limpidly. ‘All?’ the lord exclaimed.‘Escaping her chains and practisingwitchcraft, keeping a Moorishslave, heretical practices andmurder?’ ‘Give me a moment,’ Luca saidthoughtfully. He went to the doorand said a quiet word to Freize,then came back to them. ‘I amsorry. I knew he would wait thereall day until he had a word fromme. I have told him to pack ourthings, so we can leave thisafternoon. You are ready to send
  • 297. your report, Brother Peter?’ Luca looked towards BrotherPeter but sensed, out of thecorner of his eye, a second quickexchange of glances between theLord Lucretili and the LadyAlmoner. ‘Oh, of course.’ Luca turned toher. ‘Lady Almoner, you will bewondering what I recommend forthe future of the abbey?’ ‘It is a great concern to me,’ shesaid, her eyes lowered once more.‘It is my life here, you understand.I am in your hands. We are, all ofus, in your hands.’ Luca paused for a moment. ‘Ican think of no-one who wouldmake a better Lady Abbess. If thenunnery were not handed over tothe monastery but were to remaina sister house, an independentsister house for women, would
  • 298. you undertake the duty of beingthe Lady Abbess?’ She bowed. ‘I am very sure thatour holy brothers could run thisorder very well, but if I werecalled to serve . . .’ ‘But if I were to recommendthat it remain under the rule ofwomen?’ For a moment only heremembered the bright pride ofthe Lady Abbess when she toldhim that she had never learnedthat women should be under therule of men. Almost, he smiled atthe memory. ‘I could only be appointed bythe lord himself,’ the LadyAlmoner said deferentially,recalling him to the present. ‘What do you think?’ Luca said,turning to the lord. ‘If the place were to bethoroughly exorcised by the
  • 299. priests, if my Lady Almoner wereto accept the duty, if yourecommend it, I can think of no-one better to guide the souls ofthese poor young women.’ ‘I agree,’ said Luca. He pausedas if a thought had suddenlystruck him. ‘But doesn’t thisoverset your father’s will? Was theabbey not left entirely to yoursister? The abbey and the landsaround it? The woods and thestreams? Were they not to be inyour sister’s keeping and she to beLady Abbess till death?’ ‘As a murderer and a witch,then she is a dead woman in law,’the lord said. ‘She is disinheritedby her sins; it will be as if she hadnever been born. She will be anoutlaw, with no home anywhere inChristendom. The declaration ofher guilt will mean that no-one
  • 300. can offer her shelter, she will havenowhere to lay her false head.She will be dead to the law, aghost to the people. The LadyAlmoner can become the newLady Abbess and command thelands and the abbey and all.’ Heput his hand up to shield his eyes.‘Forgive me, I can’t help but grievefor my sister!’ ‘Very well,’ Luca said. ‘I’ll draw up the finding of guiltand the writ for her arrest,’Brother Peter said, unfurling hispapers. ‘You can sign it at once.’ ‘And then you will leave, and wewill never meet again,’ the LadyAlmoner said quietly to Luca. Hervoice was filled with regret. ‘I have to,’ he said for her earsalone. ‘I have my duty and myvows too.’ ‘And I have to stay here,’ she
  • 301. replied. ‘To serve my sisters aswell as I can. Our paths will nevercross again – but I won’t forgetyou. I won’t ever forget you.’ He stepped close so that hismouth was almost against herveil. He could smell a hint ofperfume on the linen. ‘What of thegold?’ She shook her head. ‘I shallleave it where it lies in the watersof the stream,’ she promised him.‘It has cost us too dear. I shalllead my sisters to renew theirvows of poverty. I won’t even tellLord Lucretili about it. It shall beour secret: yours and mine. Willyou keep the secret with me?Shall it be the last thing that weshare together?’ Luca bowed his head so thatshe could not see the bitter twistof his mouth. ‘So at the end of my
  • 302. inquiry, you are Lady Abbess, thegold runs quietly in the stream,and the Lady Isolde is as a deadwoman.’ Something in his tone alertedher keen senses. ‘This is justice!’she said quickly. ‘This is how itshould be.’ ‘Certainly, I am beginning to seethat this is how some people thinkit should be,’ Luca said drily. ‘Here is the writ of arrest andthe finding of guilt for the LadyIsolde, formerly known as LadyAbbess of the abbey of Lucretili,’Brother Peter said, pushing thedocument across the table, the inkstill wet. ‘And here is the letterapproving the Lady Almoner asthe new Lady Abbess.’ ‘Very efficient,’ Luca remarked.‘Quick.’ Brother Peter looked startled at
  • 303. the coldness of his tone. ‘I thoughtwe had all agreed?’ ‘There is just one thingremaining,’ Luca said. He openedthe door and Freize was standingthere, holding a leather sack. Lucatook it without a word, and put iton the table, then untied thestring. He unpacked the objects inorder. ‘A shoemaker’s awl, fromthe Lady Almoner’s secretcupboard in the carved chimneybreast of her parlour . . .’ Heheard her sharp gasp and whisperof denial. He reached into hisjacket pocket and took out thepiece of paper. Slowly, in thesilently attentive room, heunfolded it and showed them theprint of the bloodstained palm ofthe nun who had come to him inthe night and shown him thestigmata. He put the sharp
  • 304. triangular point of theshoemaker’s awl over thebloodstained print: it fittedexactly. Luca gritted his teeth, facing thefact that his suspicions were true,though he had hoped so muchthat this hunch, this lateawareness, would prove false. Hefelt like a man gambling withblank-faced dice; now he did noteven know what he was bettingon. ‘There is only one thing that Ithink certain,’ he said tightly.‘There is only one thing that I canbe sure of. I think it most unlikelythat Our Lord’s sacred woundswould be exactly the shape andsize of a common shoemaker’sawl. These wounds, which I sawand recorded on the palm of a nunof this abbey, were made byhuman hands, with a cobbler’s
  • 305. tools, with this tool in particular.’ ‘They were hurting themselves,’the Lady Almoner said quickly.‘Hysterical women will do that. Iwarned you of it.’ ‘Using the awl from yourcupboard?’ He took out the littleglass jar of seeds, and showedthem to the Lady Almoner. ‘I takeit that these are belladonnaseeds?’ Lord Lucretili interrupted. ‘Idon’t know what you aresuggesting?’ ‘Don’t you?’ Luca asked, as if hewere interested. ‘Does anyone?Do you know what I amsuggesting, my Lady Almoner?’ Her face was as white as thewimple that framed it. She shookher head, her grey eyeswordlessly begging him to saynothing more. Luca looked at her,
  • 306. his young face grim. ‘I have to goon,’ he said, as if in answer to herunspoken question. ‘I was senthere to inquire and I have to goon. Besides, I have to know. Ialways have to know.’ ‘There is no need . . .’ shewhispered. ‘The wicked LadyAbbess is gone, whatever she didwith the awl, with belladonna . . .’ ‘I need to know,’ he repeated.The last object he brought outwas the book of the abbey’saccounts that Freize had takenfrom her room. ‘There’s nothing wrong with thelist of work,’ she said, suddenlyconfident. ‘You cannot say thatthere is anything missing from thegoods listed and the markettakings. I have been a goodsteward to this abbey. I havecared for it as if it were my own
  • 307. house. I have worked for it as if Iwere the lady of the house, I havebeen the Magistra, I have been incommand here.’ ‘There is no doubt that you havebeen a good steward,’ Lucaassured her. ‘But there is onething missing.’ He turned to theclerk. ‘Brother Peter, look at theseand tell me, do you see a fortunein gold mentioned anywhere?’ Peter took the leather-boundbook and flipped the pagesquickly. ‘Eggs,’ he volunteered.‘Vegetables, some sewing work,some laundry work, some copyingwork – no fortune. Certainly nofortune in gold.’ ‘You know I didn’t take thegold,’ the Lady Almoner said,turning to Luca, putting a pleadinghand on his arm. ‘I stole nothing.It was all the Lady Abbess, she
  • 308. that is a witch. She set the nunsto soak the fleeces in the river,she stole the gold dust and sent itout for sale to the gold merchants.As I told you, as you saw foryourself. It was not me. Nobodywill say it was me. It was done byher.’ ‘Gold?’ Lord Lucretili demandedin a stagey shout of surprise.‘What gold?’ ‘The Lady Abbess and her slavehave been panning for gold in theabbey stream, and selling it,’ theLady Almoner told him quickly. ‘Ilearned of it by chance when theyfirst came. The inquirer discoveredthis only yesterday.’ ‘And where is the gold now?’Luca asked. ‘Sold to the merchants on ViaPortico d’Ottavia, I suppose,’ sheflared at him. ‘And the profit taken
  • 309. by the witches. We will never getit back. We will never know forsure.’ ‘Who sold it?’ Luca asked, as ifgenuinely curious. ‘The slave, the heretic slave,she must have gone to the Jews,to the gold merchants,’ she saidquickly. ‘She would know what todo, she would trade with them.She would speak their language,she would know how to hagglewith them. She is a heretic likethem, greedy like them, allowedto profiteer like they are. As badas them . . . worse.’ Luca shook his head at her,almost as if he was sorry as histrap closed on her. ‘You told meyourself that she never left thenunnery,’ he said slowly. Henodded at Brother Peter. ‘You tooka note of what the Lady Almoner
  • 310. said, that first day, when she wasso charming and so helpful.’ Brother Peter turned to thepage in his collection of papers,riffling the manuscript pages. ‘Shesaid: “She never leaves the LadyAbbess’s side. And the LadyAbbess never goes out. The slavehaunts the place.”’ Luca turned back to the LadyAlmoner whose grey eyes flicked –just once – to the lord, as if askingfor his help, and then back toLuca. ‘You told me yourself she wasthe Lady Abbess’s shadow,’ Lucasaid steadily. ‘She never left thenunnery: the gold has never leftthe nunnery. You have it hiddenhere.’ Her white face blanched yetmore pale but she seemed todraw courage from somewhere.
  • 311. ‘Search for it!’ she defied him. ‘Youcan tear my storeroom apart andyou will not find it. Search myroom, search my house, I have nohidden gold here! You can provenothing against me!’ ‘Enough of this. My damnedsister was a sinner, a heretic, awitch, and now a thief,’ LordLucretili suddenly intervened. Hesigned the contract for her arrestwithout hesitation, and handed itback to Brother Peter. ‘Get thispublished at once. Announce ahue and cry for her. If we take herand her heretic familiar, I shallburn them without further trial. Ishall burn them without allowingthem to open their mouths.’ Hereached towards Luca. ‘Give meyour hand,’ he said. ‘I thank you,for all you have done here. Youhave pursued an inquiry and
  • 312. completed it. It’s over, thank God.It’s done. Let’s make an end to itnow, like men. Let’s finish it here.’ ‘No, it’s not quite over,’ Lucasaid, detaching himself from thelord’s grip. He opened thegatehouse door and led all ofthem out to the yard where theywere loading the coffin of thedead nun onto the black-drapedcart. ‘What’s this?’ the lord saidirritably, following Luca outside.‘You can’t interfere with the coffin.We agreed. I am taking it to avigil in my chapel. You cannottouch it. You must show respect.Hasn’t she suffered enough?’ The lay sisters heaved at thecoffin, sweating with effort. Therewere eight of them hauling it ontothe low cart. Luca observed,grimly, that it was a heavy load.
  • 313. The lord took Luca firmly by thearm. ‘Come tonight to the castle,’he whispered. ‘We can open itthere if you insist. I will help you,as I promised I would.’ Luca was watching Freize, whohad gone to help the lay sistersslide the coffin onto the cart. Firsthe shouldered the coffin withthem, and then nimbly climbed upinto the cart, standing alongsidethe coffin, a crowbar in his hand. ‘Don’t you dare touch it!’ TheLady Almoner was on the cart,beside him, in a moment, herhands on his forearm. ‘This coffinis sanctified, blessed by the priesthimself. Don’t you dare touch hercoffin, she has been censed andblessed with sanctified water, lether rest in peace!’ There was a murmur from thelay sisters and one of them,
  • 314. seeing Freize’s determined face ashe gently put the Lady Almoneraside, slipped away to the chapelwhere the nuns were praying fortheir departed sister’s soul. ‘Get down,’ the Lady Almonercommanded Freize, holding on tohis arm. ‘I order it. You shall notabuse her in death! You shall notsee her poor sainted face!’ ‘Tell your man to get down,’Lord Lucretili said quietly to Luca,as one man to another. ‘Whateveryou suspect, it won’t help if thereis a scandal now, and thesewomen have borne too muchalready. We have all gone throughtoo much today. We can sort thisout later in my chapel. Let thenuns say farewell to their sisterand get the coffin away.’ The nuns were pouring out ofthe chapel towards the yard, their
  • 315. faces white and furious. Whenthey saw Freize on the cart, theystarted to run. ‘Freize!’ Luca shouted awarning, as the women fell ontothe cart like a sea of white,keening high notes, like a madchoir turning on an enemy. ‘Freize,leave it!’ He was too late. Freize had gothis crowbar beneath the lid andheaved it up as the first nunsreached the cart and started tograb at him. With a terrible creakthe nails yielded on one side andthe lid lifted up. Dourlytriumphant, Freize fended off oneslight woman, and nodded downat Luca. ‘As you thought,’ he said. The first of the nuns recoiled atthe sight of the open coffin andwhispered to the others what theyhad seen. The others, running up,
  • 316. checked and stopped, as someoneat the back let out a bewilderedsob. ‘What is it now? What in thename of Our Lady is it now?’ Luca climbed up beside Freize,and the sight of the coffin blazedat him. He saw that the dead nunhad been packed in bags of goldand one of them had split,showering her with treasure sothat she appeared like a gloriouspharaoh. Gold dust filled hercoffin, gilded her face, enamelledthe coins on her staring eyes,glittered in her wimple and turnedher gown to treasure. She was agolden icon, a Byzantine glory, nota corpse. ‘The witches did this! It’s theirwork,’ the Lady Almoner shouted.‘They put their stolen treasure inwith their victim.’ Luca shook his head, at this, her
  • 317. last attempt, and turned to theLady Almoner and to LordLucretili, his young face grave. ‘Icharge you, Lady Almoner, withthe murder of this young woman,Sister Augusta, by feeding herbelladonna to cause dreams andhallucinations to disturb the peaceand serenity of this nunnery, toshame the Lady Abbess and driveher from her place. I charge you,Lord Lucretili, of conspiring withthe Lady Almoner to drive theLady Abbess from her home,which was her inheritance underthe terms of her father’s will, andsetting the Lady Almoner to stealthe gold from the abbey. I chargeyou both with attempting tosmuggle this gold, the LadyAbbess’s property, from the abbeyin this coffin, and of falselyaccusing the Lady Abbess and her
  • 318. slave of witchcraft and conspiringto cause their deaths.’ The lord tried to laugh. ‘You’redreaming too. They’ve driven youmad too!’ he started. ‘You’rewandering in your wits!’ Luca shook his head. ‘No, I amnot.’ ‘But the evidence?’ BrotherPeter muttered to him. ‘Evidence?’ ‘The slave never sold the gold,she never left the abbey – theLady Almoner told us so. Soneither she nor the Lady Abbessever profited from the gold-panning. But the Lady Almoneraccused them, even naming thestreet in Rome where the goldmerchants trade. The only peoplewho tried to get this month’s goldout of the abbey were the LadyAlmoner and the Lord Lucretili –right now in this coffin. The only
  • 319. woman who showed any signs ofwealth was the Lady Almoner, inher silk petticoats and her fineleather slippers. She plotted withthe lord to drive his sister from theabbey so that she could becomeLady Abbess and they would sharethe gold together.’ Lord Lucretili looked at BrotherPeter, Freize and Luca, and thenat his own men-at-arms, theclerks and priests. Then he turnedto the blank-faced nuns who wereswaying like a field of white liliesand whispering, ‘What is hesaying? What is the strangersaying? Is he saying bad things? Ishe accusing us? Who is he? I don’tlike him. Did he kill SisterAugusta? Is he the figure of Deaththat she saw?’ ‘Whatever you believe,whatever you say, I think you are
  • 320. outnumbered,’ Lord Lucretili saidin quiet triumph. ‘You can leavenow safely, or you can face thesemadwomen. Just as you like. But Iwarn you, I think they are socrazed that they will tear youapart.’ The crowd of young women,more than two hundred of them,gathered closer to the coffin cart,one after the other, to see theicon that had been made of theirinnocent sister, and their sibilantwhispers were like a thousandhissing snakes as they saw herlying there in her opened coffin,bathed in gold, and Freizestanding above her like anabusing man – an emblem of allthe wickedness of the world – witha crowbar in his hands. ‘This man is our enemy,’ theLady Almoner told them, stepping
  • 321. away from him to put herself atthe head of the women. ‘He isdefending the false Lady Abbess,who killed our sister. He hasbroken into our sister’sconsecrated coffin.’ The nuns’ faces turned towardsher, their expressions blank, as ifthey were beyond words; and stillthe sibilant whispers went on. ‘They will do what is right,’ Lucagambled. He turned to the white-faced women, and tried to capturetheir attention. ‘Sisters, listen tome. Your Lady Abbess has beendriven from her home and youhave been driven half-mad bybelladonna fed to you in breadfrom this woman’s table. Are youstill so sick with the drug that youwill be obedient to her? Or willyou find your own way? Will youthink for yourselves? Can you
  • 322. think for yourselves?’ There was a terrible silence.Luca could see the haunted facesof all the women staring blankly athim and for a moment he thoughtthat they were indeed so sick fromthe drug that they would take himand Freize and Brother Peter andtear them to pieces. He took holdof the side of the cart with onehand, so that no-one could see itshaking, and he pointed his otherhand at the Lady Almoner. ‘Getdown from the cart,’ he said. ‘I amtaking you to Rome to answer foryour crimes against your sisters,against the Lady Abbess, andagainst God.’ She stayed where she was, highabove him, and she looked at thenuns, whose faces turnedobediently towards her. She saidthree short terrible words. ‘Sisters!
  • 323. Kill him!’ Luca whirled around, pulling hisdagger from his boot, and Freizejumped down to stand alongsidehim. Brother Peter moved towardsthem, but in a second the threemen were surrounded. The nuns,pale and dull-faced, formedthemselves into an unbreakablecircle, like a wall of coldness, tookone step towards the three men,and then took another step closer. ‘St James the Greater protectme,’ Freize swore. He raised hiscrowbar, but the nuns neitherflinched nor stopped their steadyonward pace. The first nun put her hand toher head, took hold of her wimple,and threw it down on the ground.Horridly, her shaven head madeher look like neither man norwoman, but a strange being,
  • 324. some kind of hairless animal.Beside her the next nun did thesame, then they all threw theirwimples down showing theirheads, some cropped, someshaven quite bald. ‘God help us!’ Luca whispered tohis comrades on either side ofhim. ‘What are they doing?’ ‘I think—’ Brother Peter began. ‘Traitor!’ the nuns whisperedtogether, like a choir. Luca looked desperately around,but there was no way to break outof the circle of women. ‘Traitor!’ they said again, moreloudly. But now they were notlooking at the men, they werelooking over the men’s heads,upwards, to the Lady Almonerhigh on the hearse. ‘Traitor!’ they breathed again. ‘Not me!’ she said, her voice
  • 325. cracked with sudden fear. ‘Thesemen are your enemies, and thewitches who are fled.’ They shook their bald heads inone terrible movement, and nowthey closed on the cart and theirgrasping hands reached past themen, as if they were nothing,reached up to pull the LadyAlmoner down. She looked fromone sister to another, then at thelocked gate and the porteress whostood before it, arms folded.‘Traitor!’ they said and now theyhad hold of her robe, of her silkpetticoats beneath her robe, andwere pawing at her, shaking hergown, pulling at her, grasping holdof the fine leather belt of herrosary, gripping the gold chain ofkeys, bringing her to her knees. She tore herself from their gripand jumped over the side of the
  • 326. cart to Luca, clinging to his arm.‘Arrest me!’ she said with suddenurgency. ‘Arrest me and take menow. I confess. I am your prisoner.Protect me!’ ‘I have this woman underarrest!’ Luca said clearly to thenuns. ‘She is my prisoner, in mycharge. I will see that justice isdone.’ ‘Traitor!’ They were closing insteadily and fast; nothing couldstop them. ‘Save me!’ she screamed in hisear. Luca put his arm in front of herbut the nuns were pressingforwards. ‘Freize! Get her out ofhere!’ Freize was pinned to the cart bya solid wall of women. ‘Giorgio!’ she called to LordLucretili. ‘Giorgio! Save me!’
  • 327. He shook his head convulsively,like a man in a fit, flinching backfrom the mob of nuns. ‘I did it for you!’ she cried tohim. ‘I did it all for you!’ He turned a hard face to Luca. ‘Idon’t know what she’s saying, Idon’t know what she means.’ The blank-faced women camecloser, pressing against the men.Luca tried to gently push themaway but it was like pushingagainst an avalanche of snow.They reached for the LadyAlmoner with pinching hands. ‘No!’ Luca shouted. ‘I forbid it!She is under arrest. Let justice bedone!’ The lord suddenly tore himselfaway from the scene, strode pastthem all to the stables, and cameout at once on his red-leathercaparisoned horse with his men-
  • 328. at-arms closed up around him.‘Open the gate,’ he ordered theporteress. ‘Open the gate or I willride you down.’ Mutely she swung it open. Thenuns did not even turn their headsas his cavalcade flung themselvesthrough the gate and away downthe road to his castle. Luca could feel the weight ofthe women pressing against him.‘I command . . .’ he started again,but they were like a wall bearingdown on him, and he was beingsuffocated by their robes, by theirremorseless thrusting against himas if they would stifle him withtheir numbers. He tried to pushhimself away from the side of thecart; but then he lost his footingand went down. He kicked androlled in a spasm of terror at thethought that they would trample
  • 329. him, unknowingly, that he woulddie beneath their sandalled feet.The Lady Almoner would haveclung to him but they dragged heroff him. Half a dozen women heldLuca down as others forced theLady Almoner to the pyre that sheherself had ordered them to build.Freize was shouting now,thrashing about as a dozenwomen pinned him to the floor.Brother Peter was frozen in shock,white-robed nuns crushing himinto silence, against the side ofthe cart. She had ordered them to maketwo high pyres of dry wood, eachbuilt around a central pole, setstrongly in the ground. Theycarried her to the nearest, thoughshe kicked and struggled andscreamed for help, and theylashed her to the pole, wrapping
  • 330. the ropes tight around herwrithing body. ‘Save me!’ she screamed toLuca. ‘For the love of God, saveme!’ He had a wimple over his faceso he could not see, he wassuffocating on the ground underthe fabric, but he shouted to themto stop, even as they took thetorch from the gatehouseporteress, who gave it silently tothem, even as they held it to thetarred wood at the foot of the pile,even as she disappeared fromview in a cloud of dark smoke,even as he heard her piercingscream of agony as her expensivesilk petticoats and her finewoollen gown blazed up in aplume of yellow flames.
  • 331. The three young men rode awayfrom the abbey in silence,sickened by the violence, glad toescape without a lynchingthemselves. Every now and thenLuca would shudder and violentlybrush smuts from the sleeves ofhis jacket, and Freize would passhis broad hand over hisbewildered face and say, ‘Sweetsaints . . .’ They rode all the day on thehigh land above the forest, theautumn sun hard in their eyes, thestony ground hard underfoot, andwhen they saw the swingingbough of holly outside a housethat marked it as an inn theyturned their horses into the stableyard in silence. ‘Does Lord Lucretili
  • 332. own this land?’ Freize asked thestable lad, before they had evendismounted. ‘He does not, you are out of hislordship’s lands now. This innbelongs to Lord Piccante.’ ‘Then we’ll stay,’ Luca decided.His voice was hoarse; he hawkedand spat out the smell of thesmoke. ‘Saints alive, I can hardlybelieve we are away from it all.’ Brother Peter shook his head,still lost for words. Freize took the horses to thestables as the other two went intothe taproom, shouting for therough red wine of the region totake the taste of wood smoke andtallow from their mouths. Theyordered their food in silence andprayed over it when it came. ‘I need to go to confession,’Luca said, after they had eaten.
  • 333. ‘Our Lady intercede for me, I feelfilthy with sin.’ ‘I need to write a report,’Brother Peter said. They looked at one another,sharing their sense of horror. ‘Whowould ever believe what we haveseen?’ Luca wondered. ‘You canwrite what you like: who wouldever believe it?’ ‘He will,’ Brother Peter said. Itwas the first time he had ownedhis fealty to the lord and theOrder. ‘He will understand. Thelord of the Order. He has seen allthis, and worse. He is studying theend of days. Nothing surpriseshim. He will read it, andunderstand it, and keep it underhis hand, and wait for our nextreport.’ ‘Our next report? We have to goon?’ Luca asked disbelievingly.
  • 334. ‘I have our next destinationunder his own seal,’ the clerk said. ‘Surely this inquiry was such afailure that we will be recalled?’ ‘Oh no, he will see this as asuccess,’ Brother Peter saidgrimly. ‘You were sent to inquireafter madness and manifestationsof evil at the abbey and you havedone so. You know how it wascaused: the Lady Almoner givingthe nuns belladonna so that theywould run mad. You know whyshe did it: her desire to win theplace of the Lady Abbess forherself and grow rich. You knowthat Lord Lucretili encouraged herto do it so that he could murderhis sister under the pretence thatshe was a witch and so gain herinheritance of the abbey and thegold. It was your firstinvestigation, and – though I may
  • 335. have had my doubts as to yourmethods – I will tell my lord thatyou have completed itsuccessfully.’ ‘An innocent woman died, aguilty woman was burned by amob of madwomen, and twowomen who may be innocent oftheft but who are undoubtedlyguilty of witchcraft havedisappeared into thin air, and youcall that a success?’ Brother Peter allowed himself athin smile. ‘I have seen worseinvestigations with worseoutcomes.’ ‘You must have been to thejaws of hell itself, then!’ He nodded, utterly serious. ‘Ihave.’ Luca paused. ‘With otherinvestigators?’ ‘There are many of you.’
  • 336. ‘Young men like me?’ ‘Some like you, with gifts and acuriosity like you. Some quiteunlike you. I don’t think I haveever met one with faerie bloodbefore.’ Luca made a quick gesture ofdenial. ‘That’s nonsense.’ ‘The master of the Order picksout the inquirers himself, sendsthem out, sees what theydiscover. You are his private armyagainst sin and the coming of theend of days. He has beenpreparing for this, for years.’ Luca pushed back his chair fromthe table. ‘I’m going to bed. Ihope to heaven that I don’tdream.’ ‘You won’t dream,’ Brother Peterassured him. ‘He chose well withyou. You have the nerves to bearit, and the courage to undertake
  • 337. it. Soon you will learn the wisdomto judge more carefully.’ ‘And then?’ ‘And then he will send you tothe frontier of Christendom, wherethe heretics and the devils musterto wage war against us and thereare no good people at all.’The women rode side by side,with their horses shoulder toshoulder. Now and then Isoldewould give a shuddering sob, andIshraq would put out a hand totouch her fists, clenched tightly onthe reins. ‘What do you think will becomeof the abbey?’ Isolde asked. ‘Ihave abandoned them. I havebetrayed them.’
  • 338. The other girl shrugged hershoulders. ‘We had no choice.Your brother was determined toget it back into his keeping, theLady Almoner was determined totake your place. Either she wouldhave poisoned us, or he wouldhave had us burned as witches.’ ‘How could she do such a thing– the poisoning, and driving us allmad?’ Ishraq shrugged. ‘She wantedthe abbey for herself. She hadworked her way up, she wasdetermined to be Lady Abbess.She was always against you, forall that she seemed so pleasantand so kind when we first gotthere. And only she knows howlong she was plotting with yourbrother. Perhaps he promised herthe abbey long ago.’ ‘And the inquirer – she misled
  • 339. him completely. The man is afool.’ ‘She talked to him, she confidedin him when you would not. Ofcourse he learned her side of thestory. But where shall we go now?’ Isolde turned a pale face to herfriend. ‘I don’t know. Now we aretruly lost. I have lost myinheritance and my place in theworld, and we have both beennamed as witches. I am so sorry,Ishraq. I should never havebrought you into the abbey, Ishould have let you return to yourhomeland. You should go now.’ ‘I go with you,’ the girl saidsimply. ‘We go together, whereverthat is.’ ‘I should order you to leave me,’Isolde said with a wry smile. ‘But Ican’t.’ ‘Your father, my beloved lord,
  • 340. raised us together and said thatwe should be together always. Letus obey him in that, since we havefailed him in so much else.’ Isolde nodded. ‘And anyway, Ican’t imagine living without you.’ The girl smiled at her friend. ‘Sowhere to? We can’t stay onLucretili lands.’ Isolde thought for a moment.‘We should go to my father’sfriends. Anyone who served withhim on crusade would be a friendto us. We should go to them, andtell them of this attack on me, weshould tell them about mybrother, and what he has done tothe abbey. We should clear myname. Perhaps one of them willrestore me to my home. Perhapsone will help me accuse mybrother and win the castle backfrom him.’
  • 341. Ishraq nodded. ‘CountWladislaw was your father’sdearest friend. His son would oweyou friendship. But I don’t see howwe’d get to him, he lives milesaway, in Wallachia, at the veryfrontier of Christendom.’ ‘But he’d help me,’ Isolde said.‘His father and mine swore eternalbrotherhood. He’d help me.’ ‘We’ll have to get money fromsomewhere,’ Ishraq warned. ‘Ifwe’re going to attempt such ajourney we’ll have to hire guards,we can’t travel alone. The roadsare too dangerous.’ ‘You still have my mother’sjewels safe?’ ‘I never take off the purse.They’re in my hidden belt. I’ll sellone at the next town.’ Ishraqglanced at Lady Isolde’sdownturned face, her plain brown
  • 342. gown, the poor horse she wasriding and her shabby boots. ‘Thisis not what your father wanted foryou.’ The young woman bowed herhead and rubbed her eyes withthe back of her hand. ‘I know it,’she said. ‘But who knows what hewanted for me? Why would hesend me into the abbey if hewanted me to be the woman thathe raised me to be? Butsomewhere, perhaps in heaven,he will be watching over me andpraying that I find my way in thishard world without him.’ Ishraq was about to reply whenshe suddenly pulled up her horse.‘Isolde!’ she cried warningly, butshe was too late. A rope that hadbeen tied across the road to astrong tree was suddenly snatchedtight by someone hidden in the
  • 343. bushes, catching the front legs ofIsolde’s horse. At once the animalreared up and, tangled in therope, staggered and went downon its front knees, so that Isoldewas flung heavily to the ground. Ishraq did not hesitate for amoment. Holding her own reinstightly she jumped from the horseand hauled her friend to her feet.‘Ambush!’ she cried. ‘Get on myhorse!’ Four men came tumbling out ofthe woods on either side of theroad, two holding daggers, twoholding cudgels. One grabbedIsolde’s horse, and threw the reinsover a bush, while the other threecame on. ‘Now, little ladies, put yourhands in the air and then throwdown your purses and nobody willget hurt,’ the first man said.
  • 344. ‘Travelling on your own? That wasfoolish, my little ladies.’ Ishraq was holding a long thindagger out before her, her otherhand clenched in a fist, standinglike a fighter, well-balanced onboth feet, swaying slightly as sheeyed the three men, wonderingwhich would come first. ‘Come anycloser and you are a dead man,’she said briefly. He lunged towards them andIshraq feinted with the knife andspun round, slashed at the arm ofanother man, and turned back herfist flying out to crunch against thefirst man’s face. But she wasoutnumbered. The third manraised the cudgel and smashed itagainst the side of her head, shewent down with a groan, andIsolde at once stepped over her toprotect her, and faced the three
  • 345. men. ‘You can have my purse,’ shesaid. ‘But leave us alone.’ The wounded man clapped hishand over his arm and cursed asthe blood flowed between hisfingers. ‘She-dog,’ he said shortly. The other man gingerly touchedhis bruised face. ‘Give us thepurse,’ he said angrily. Isolde untied the purse thathung at her belt and tossed it tohim. There was nothing in it but afew pennies. She knew that Ishraqhad her mother’s sapphires safe ina belt tied inside the bodice of hertunic. ‘That’s all we have,’ shesaid. ‘We’re poor girls. That’s allwe have in the world.’ ‘Show me your hands,’ said theman with the cudgel. Isolde held out her hands. ‘Palms up,’ he said. She turned her hands upwards
  • 346. and at once he stepped forwards,twisted her arms behind her back,and she felt the other man ropeher tightly. ‘Lady’s hands,’ he jeered. ‘Softwhite hands. You’ve never done astroke of work in your life. You’llhave a wealthy family or friendssomewhere who will pay a ransomfor you, won’t you?’ ‘I swear to you that no-one willpay for me.’ Isolde tried to turnbut the ropes bit tight into herarms. ‘I swear it. I am alone in theworld, my father just dead. Myfriend is alone too. Let me . . .’ ‘Well, we’ll see,’ the man said. On the ground Ishraq stirredand tried to get to her feet. ‘Letme help her,’ Isolde said. ‘She’shurt.’ ‘Tie them up together,’ the mansaid to his fellows. ‘In the morning
  • 347. we’ll see if anyone is missing twopretty girls. If they aren’t, thenwe’ll see if anyone wants twopretty girls. If they don’t, we’ll sellthem to the Turks.’ The menlaughed and the one with thebruised face patted Isolde’s cheek. The chief hit his hand away. ‘Nospoiling the goods,’ he said. ‘Nottill we know who they are.’ Heheaved Ishraq to her feet and heldher as she too was roped. ‘I’msorry,’ she mumbled to Isolde. ‘Give me water for her,’ Isoldecommanded the man. ‘And let mebathe her head.’ ‘Come on,’ was all he said to theothers and led the way off thetrack to their hidden camp.
  • 348. Luca and his two companionswere quiet the following morningwhen they started at dawn. Freizewas nursing a headache fromwhat he said was the worst ale inChristendom, Brother Peterseemed thoughtful, and Luca wasreviewing all that had been saidand done at the abbey, certainthat he could have done better,sure that he had failed, and –more than anything else –puzzling over the disappearance ofthe Lady Abbess and her strangecompanion, out of chains, out of astone cellar, into thin air. They left the inn just as the skywas turning from darkness togrey, hours before sunrise, andthey wrapped their cloaks tightlyaround them against the morningchill. Brother Peter said that theywere to ride north, until he
  • 349. opened their next orders. ‘Because we like nothing morethan when he breaks that seal,unfolds that paper, and tells usthat some danger is opening upunder our feet and we are to ridestraight into it.’ Freize addressedthe ground. ‘Mad nuns one day,what’s for today? We don’t evenknow.’ ‘Hush,’ Luca said quietly. ‘Wedon’t know, nobody knows; that’sthe very point of it.’ ‘We know it won’t be kindly,’Freize remarked to his horse, whorolled an ear back towards himand seemed to sympathise. They went on in silence for alittle while, following a dusty trackthat climbed higher and higherbetween bare rocks. The treeswere fewer here, an odd twistedolive tree, a desiccated pine tree.
  • 350. Above they could see an eaglesoaring and the sun was bright intheir faces though the wind fromthe north was cold. As theyreached the top of the plateauthere was a little forested area, tothe right of the road. The horsesdropped their heads and plodded,the riders slumped in theirsaddles, when Luca’s eye wascaught by something that lookedlike a long black snake lying in thedust of the road before them. Heraised his hand for a halt and,when Freize started to speak, heturned in the saddle and scowledat him, so the man was silent. ‘What is it?’ Brother Petermouthed at him. Luca pointed in reply. In theroad in front of them, scuffed overwith dust and hidden withcarefully placed leaves, was a
  • 351. rope, tied to a tree on one side,disappearing into the woods onthe right. ‘Ambush,’ Freize said quietly.‘You wait here; act like I’ve gonefor a piss. . . . Saints save us! Thatdamned ale!’ he said more clearly.He hitched his trousers, slid off hishorse and went, cursing the ale,to the side of the road. A swiftglance in each direction and hewas stepping delicately andquietly into the trees, circling thelikely destination of the rope intothe bushes. There was a briefsilence and then a low whistle likea bird call told the others thatthey could come. They pushedtheir way through the little treesand scrubby bushes to find Freizeseated like a boulder on the chestof a man frozen with fear. Freize’sbig hand was over his mouth, his
  • 352. large horn-handled dagger bladeat the man’s throat. The captive’seyes rolled towards Luca andBrother Peter as they camethrough the bushes, but he layquite still. ‘Sentry,’ Freize said quietly.‘Fast asleep. So a pretty poorsentry. But there’ll be some bandof brigands within earshot.’ Heleaned forwards to the man, whowas gulping for air underneath hisweight. ‘Where is everyone else?’ The man rolled his eyes to thewoods on their right. ‘And how many?’ Freize asked.‘Blink when I say. Ten? No? Eight?No? Five, then?’ He lookedtowards Luca. ‘Five men. Whydon’t we just leave them to dotheir business? No point lookingfor trouble.’ ‘What is their business?’ Luca
  • 353. asked. ‘Robbery,’ Brother Peter saidquietly. ‘And sometimes theykidnap people and sell them tothe Ottomans for the galleys.’ ‘Not necessarily,’ Freizeinterrupted quickly. He scowled atBrother Peter to warn him to sayno more. ‘Might just be poaching abit of game. Poachers and thieves.Not doing a great deal of harm.No need for us to get involved.’ ‘Kidnap?’ Luca repeated icily. ‘Not necessarily so . . .’ Freizerepeated. ‘Probably nothing morethan poachers.’ It was too late. Luca wasdetermined to save anyone fromthe galleys of the Ottomanpirates. ‘Gag him, and tie him up,’he ordered. ‘We’ll see if they areholding anyone.’ He looked aroundthe clearing; a little path, scarcely
  • 354. more than a goat’s track, leddeeper into the woods. He waitedtill the man was gagged andbound to a tree, and then led theway, sword in one hand, dagger inthe other, Freize behind him andBrother Peter bringing up the rear. ‘Or we could just ride on,’ Freizesuggested in an urgent whisper. ‘Why are we doing this?’ BrotherPeter breathed. ‘His parents.’ Freize noddedtowards Luca’s back. ‘Kidnappedand enslaved into the Ottomangalleys. Probably dead. It’spersonal for him. I hoped for amoment, that you might havetaken my hint, and kept yourmouth shut – but no . . .’ The slight scent of a damped-down fire warned them that theywere near a camp and Luca haltedand peered through the trees. Five
  • 355. men lay sleeping around a dousedfire, snoring heavily. A couple ofempty wineskins and the charredbones of a stolen sheep showedthat they had eaten and drunkwell before falling asleep. To theside of them, tied back to back,were two figures, hooded andcloaked. Gambling that the roaringsnores would cover any noise thatthey made, Luca whispered toFreize and sent him towards thehorses. Quiet as a cat, Freizemoved along the line of tiedanimals, picked out the two verybest and took their reins, anduntied the rest. ‘Gently,’ he saidsoftly to them. ‘Wait for my word.’ Brother Peter tiptoed his wayback to the road. Their own threehorses and the donkey were tiedto a tree. He mounted his horse
  • 356. and held the reins of the others,ready for a quick escape. Thebrightness of the morning sunthrew the shadows darkly on theroad. Brother Peter prayed brieflybut fervently that Luca would savethe captives – or whatever he wasplanning to do – and come away.Bandits were a constant menaceon these country roads and it wasnot their mission to challengeeach and every one. The lord ofthe Order would not thank him ifLuca was killed in a brawl whenhe was showing such early talentas an inquirer for the Order. Back in the clearing, Lucawatched Freize take control of thehorses, then slid his sword intothe scabbard and wormed his waythrough the bushes to where thecaptives were tied to each other,and roped to a tree. He cut the
  • 357. rope to the tree and both hoodedheads came up at once. Luca puthis finger to his lips to warn themto be quiet. Quickly, in silence,they squirmed towards him,bending away from their bonds sothat he could cut the rope aroundtheir wrists. They rubbed theirwrists and their hands, withoutsaying a word, as Luca bent totheir boots and cut the ropesaround their feet. He leaned tothe nearest captive andwhispered, ‘Can you stand? Canyou walk?’ There was something thatsnagged his memory, as sharp asa tap on the shoulder, the minutehe leaned towards the captive,and then he realised that this wasno stranger. There was a scent ofrosewater as she put back herhood and the sea of golden hair
  • 358. tumbled over her shoulders andthe former Lady Abbess smiled upat him and whispered, ‘Yes,Brother, I can; but please helpIshraq, she’s hurt.’ He pulled Isolde to her feet, andthen bent to help the otherwoman. At once he could see thatshe had taken a blow to the sideof her head. There was blood onher face, her beautiful dark skinwas bruised like a plum, and herlegs buckled beneath her when hetried to get her up. ‘You go to the horses,’ hewhispered to Isolde. ‘Quiet as youcan. I’ll bring her.’ She nodded and went silent asa doe through the trees skirtingthe clearing to reach Freize, whohelped her up into the saddle ofthe best horse. Luca came behindher carrying Ishraq and bundled
  • 359. her onto a second horse. Tappingthe horses’ chests, urging themwith whispers to back away fromwhere they had been tethered,the two men led the animals withthe girls on their backs down alittle track to where Brother Peterwaited on the road. ‘Oh no,’ Brother Peter said flatlywhen he saw the white face andthe thick blonde hair of the LadyAbbess. At once she pulled herbrown hood up over her hair tohide her face, and lowered hereyes. Peter turned to Freize. ‘Youlet him risk his life for this? You lethim risk us? His sacred mission?’ Freize shrugged. ‘Better go,’was all he said. ‘And maybe we’llget away with it.’ Freize mounted his own cob,and then cocked an ear to thewoods behind them. In the
  • 360. clearing, one of the sleeping mengrunted, and turned over in hissleep, and another one cursed andraised himself onto one elbow.The horses left untethered turnedtheir heads and whinnied for theircompanions, and one started tomove after them. ‘Go!’ Luca ordered. Freize kicked his cob into acanter, leading Ishraq’s horse,with her clinging, half-conscious,to the horse’s mane. Isoldesnatched up her reins and urgedher horse alongside them. Lucavaulted into his saddle as theyheard the men shouting frombehind. The first loose horse cameout of the woods, trotting to catchup with him, and then all theothers followed, their reinstrailing. Freize yelled anincomprehensible word of warning
  • 361. to the horses as they clatteredfrom the woods and came towardshim. The gang of thievesscrambled after their runawayhorses, then saw the little groupon the road, and realised they hadbeen robbed. ‘Full gallop!’ Luca yelled, andducked as the first arrow whistledoverhead. ‘Go!’ he shouted. ‘Go!Go!’ They all hunched low over theirhorses’ necks, thundering downthe road as the men spilled out ofthe wood, cursing and swearing,sending a shower of misdirectedarrows after them. One of thestray horses bucked and screamedas it took an arrow in the rump,and raced ahead. The othersweaved around them, making aimeven more difficult. Luca held thepace as fast as he dared on the
  • 362. stony road, pulling up hisfrightened horse so it slowed to acanter and then a walk and thenhalted, panting when they werewell out of range. The stray horses collectedaround Freize. ‘Gently, my loves,’he said. ‘We’re safe if we are alltogether.’ He got down from hiscob and went to the woundedhorse. ‘Just a scratch, little girl,’ hesaid tenderly. ‘Just a scratch.’ Shebowed her head to him and hepulled gently at her ears. ‘I’llbathe it when we get to whereverin God’s earth we are going,sweetheart.’ Ishraq was clinging on to theneck of her horse, exhausted andsick with her injury. Freize lookedup at her. ‘She’s doing poorly. I’lltake her up before me.’ ‘No,’ Isolde said. ‘Lift her up
  • 363. onto my horse. We can ridetogether.’ ‘She can barely stay on!’ ‘I’ll hold her,’ she said with firmdignity. ‘She would not want to beheld by a man, it is against hertradition. And I would not like itfor her.’ Freize glanced at Luca forpermission and, when the youngman shrugged, he got down fromhis own horse and walked over towhere the slave swayed in thesaddle. ‘I’ll lift you over to yourmistress,’ he said to her, speakingloudly. ‘She’s not deaf! She’s just faint!’Luca said irritably. ‘Both as stubborn as eachother,’ Freize confided to the slavegirl’s horse as her rider tumbledinto his arms. ‘Both as stubborn as
  • 364. the little donkey, God bless him.’Gently, he carried Ishraq over toIsolde’s horse and softly set her inthe saddle and made sure thatshe was steady. ‘Are you sure youcan hold her?’ he asked Isolde. ‘I can,’ she said. ‘Well, tell me if it is too muchfor you. She’s no lightweight, andyou’re only a weakly little thing.’He turned to Luca. ‘I’ll lead herhorse. The others will follow us.’ ‘They’ll stray,’ Luca predicted. ‘I’ll whistle them on,’ Freizesaid. ‘Never hurts to have a fewspare horses, and maybe we cansell them if we need.’ He mounted his own steadycob, took the reins of Ishraq’shorse, and gave a lowencouraging whistle to the otherfour horses who at once clusteredaround him, and the little
  • 365. cavalcade set off steadily downthe road. ‘How far to the nearest town?’Luca asked Brother Peter. ‘About eight miles, I think,’ hesaid. ‘I suppose she’ll make it; butshe looks very sick.’ Luca looked back at Ishraq, whowas leaning back against Isolde,grimacing in pain, her face pale.‘She does. And then we’ll have toturn her over to the local lord forburning when we get there. We’verescued her from bandits andsaved her from the Ottomangalleys to see her burned as awitch. I doubt she will think wehave done her a kindness.’ ‘She should have been burnedas a witch yesterday,’ BrotherPeter said unsympathetically.‘Every hour is a gift to her.’ Luca reined back to bring his
  • 366. horse up alongside Isolde. ‘Howwas she injured?’ ‘She took a blow from a cudgelwhile she was trying to defend us.She’s a clever fighter usually, butthere were four of them. Theyjumped us on the road trying tosteal from us and when they sawwe were women without guardsthey thought to take us forransom.’ She shook her head as ifto rid herself of the memory. ‘Orfor the galleys.’ ‘They didn’t –’ he tried to findthe words ‘– er, hurt you?’ ‘You mean, did they rape us?’she asked, matter-of-factly. ‘No,they were keeping us for ransomand then they got drunk. But wewere lucky.’ She pressed her lipstogether. ‘I was a fool to ride outwithout a guard. I put Ishraq indanger. We’ll have to find
  • 367. someone to travel with.’ ‘You won’t be able to travel atall,’ Luca said bluntly. ‘You are myprisoners. I am arresting youunder charges of witchcraft.’ ‘Because of poor SisterAugusta?’ He blinked away the picture ofthe two young women, bloodiedlike butchers. ‘Yes.’ ‘When we get to the next townand the doctor sees Ishraq, willyou listen to me, before you handus over? I will explain everythingto you, I will confess everythingthat we have done and what wehave not done, and you can bethe judge as to whether we shouldbe sent back to my brother forburning. For that is what you willbe doing, you know. If you sendme back to him, you will sign mydeath warrant. I will have no trial
  • 368. worth the writing, I will have nohearing worth the listening. Youwill send me to my death. Won’tthat sit badly on your conscience?’ Brother Peter brought his horsealongside. ‘The report has gonealready,’ he said with dour finality.‘And you are listed as a witch.There is nothing that we can dobut release you to the civil law.’ ‘I can hear her,’ Luca saidirritably. ‘I can hear her out. And Iwill.’ She looked at him. ‘The womanyou admire so much is a liar andan apostate,’ she said bluntly.‘The Lady Almoner is my brother’slover, his dupe, and hisaccomplice. I would swear to it.He persuaded her to drive thenuns mad and blame it on me sothat you would come and destroymy rule at the abbey. She was his
  • 369. fool and I think you were hers.’ Luca felt his temper flare atbeing called a fool by this girl, butgritted his teeth. ‘I listened to herwhen you would not deign tospeak to me. I liked her when youwould not even show me yourface. She swore she would tell thetruth when you were – who knowswhat you were doing? At any rate,I had nothing to compare herwith. But even so I listened out forher lies, and I understood that shewas putting the blame on youwhen you did not even defendyourself to me. You may call me afool – though I see you were gladenough for my help back therewith the bandits – but I was notfooled by her – whatever you say.’ She bowed her head, as if tosilence her own hasty words. ‘Idon’t think you are a fool,
  • 370. Inquirer,’ she said. ‘I am gratefulto you for saving us. I shall beglad to explain my side of this toyou. And I hope you will spare us.’The physician called to theMoorish slave as they rested inthe little inn in the small townpronounced her bloodied andbruised but no bones broken. Lucapaid for the best bed for her andIsolde, and paid extra for themnot to have to share the roomwith other travellers. ‘How am I to report that we arenow paying for two women totravel with us?’ Brother Peterprotested. ‘Known criminals?’ ‘You could say that I needservants, and you have provided
  • 371. me with two bonny ones,’ Freizesuggested, earning him a sourlook from the clerk. ‘No need to report anything atall. This is not an inquiry,’ Lucaruled. ‘This is just the life of theroad, not part of our work.’Isolde put Ishraq into the big bed,as if she were an equal, spoonedsoup into her mouth as if she wereher sister, cared for her like herchild and sat with her as she slept. ‘How is the pain?’ ‘No better,’ Ishraq grimaced.‘But at least I don’t think I amdoomed any more. That ride waslike a nightmare, the pain went onand on. I thought I was going todie.’
  • 372. ‘I couldn’t protect you from theroughness of the road nor thestumbles of the horse. It joltedme, it must have been horrible foryou.’ ‘It was hard to bear.’ ‘Ishraq, I have failed you. Youcould have been killed ormurdered or enslaved. And nowwe are captured again. I have tolet you go. You can go now, whileI talk to them. Please – saveyourself. Go south, get away toyour homeland and pray to yourgod we will meet again one day.’ The girl opened her bruisedeyes and gleamed at Isolde. ‘Westay together,’ she ruled. ‘Didn’tyour father raise us as sisters ofthe heart, as companions whowere never parted?’ ‘He may have done so, but mymother didn’t give it her blessing,
  • 373. she fought against us beingtogether every day of her life,’Isolde shrewdly reminded her.‘And we have had nothing butheartache since we lost myfather.’ ‘Well, my mother blessed ourfriendship,’ Ishraq replied. ‘Shetold me: “Isolde is the sister ofyour heart”. She was happy that Iwas with you all the day long, thatwe did our lessons together andplayed together, and she lovedyour father.’ ‘They taught you languages,’Isolde reminded her withpretended resentment. ‘Andmedicine. And fighting skills. WhileI had nothing to learn but musicand embroidery.’ ‘They prepared me to be yourservant and companion,’ Ishraqsaid. ‘To serve and protect you.
  • 374. And so I am. I know the things Ineed to know to serve you. Youshould be glad of it.’ A quick tap of a finger on hercheek told her that Isolde wasglad of it. ‘Well, then,’ Ishraq said. ‘I needto sleep. You go to dinner. See ifyou can get him to release us. Andif he does that, see if you canmake him give us some money.’ ‘You think very highly of mypowers of persuasion,’ Isolde saidruefully. ‘Actually, I do.’ Ishraq noddedas her eyes closed. ‘Especiallywith him.’Luca sent for Isolde at dinnertime,planning to question her privately
  • 375. as they ate together, but then hefound that both Brother Peter andFreize intended to be in the roomwith them. ‘I shall serve the food,’ Freizesaid. ‘Better me than some wenchfrom the inn, listening toeverything you say, interrupting aslike as not.’ ‘While you are notably reticent.’ ‘Reticent,’ Freize repeated,committing the word to memory.‘Reticent. D’you know? I imaginethat I am.’ ‘And I shall take a note. This isstill an inquiry for murder andwitchcraft,’ Brother Peter saidseverely. ‘Just because we foundthem in yet more trouble, doesnot prove their innocence. Quitethe opposite. Good women stay athome and mind their manners.’ ‘We can hardly blame them for
  • 376. being homeless when their abbeywas going to burn them forwitches,’ Luca said irritably. ‘Orblame her for being expelled byher brother.’ ‘Whatever the reason, she andher servant are homeless anduncontrolled,’ Brother Peterinsisted. ‘No man rules them andno man protects them. They arecertain to get into trouble and tocause trouble.’ ‘I thought we had answered thequestions of the abbey,’ Luca said,looking from one determined faceto the other. ‘I thought we hadconcluded our inquiry and sent inour report? I thought they wereinnocent of most of the crimes? Ithought we were satisfied as totheir innocence?’ ‘We were satisfied as to thedrugging, the poisoning and the
  • 377. murder,’ Peter said. ‘Satisfied thatthe great crimes were performedby the Lady Almoner. But whatwere the two of them doing in themortuary that night? Don’t youremember them tampering withthe corpse, and the Lady Almonersaying they were having a SatanicMass on the nun’s body?’ Freize nodded. ‘He’s right. Theyhave to explain.’ ‘I’ll ask,’ Luca said. ‘I’ll ask abouteverything. But if you rememberher brother coming in, secretlyhand in glove with that woman,and his readiness to see his sisterburn before him – you can’t helpbut pity her. And, anyway, if heranswers are not satisfactory wecan hand them over to the LordPiccante who is the master here,and he can burn the two of themas the Lord Lucretili would have
  • 378. done. Is that your wish?’ Helooked at their glum faces. ‘Youwant to see them dead? Thosetwo young women?’ ‘My wish is to see justice done,’said Brother Peter. ‘Forgiveness isfor God.’ ‘Or I suppose we could just turna blind eye and let them get awayin the morning,’ Freize suggested,as he headed out of the room. ‘Oh, for goodness’ sake!’ Lucaexclaimed. Just then, Isolde came down thestairs for dinner, wearing a gownshe had borrowed from theinnkeeper’s wife. It was made ofsome coarse material, dyed a darkblue, and on her head she had acap like countrywomen wore. Itshowed the golden fold of her hairwhere she had it twisted back intoa plait. Luca remembered the
  • 379. tumble of gold when he hadtackled her in the stable yard andthe scent of rosewater when hehad held her down. In the simpleoutfit her beauty was suddenlyradiant and Luca and even BrotherPeter were tongue-tied. ‘I hope you are recovered,’ Lucamuttered as he set a chair for her. Her eyes were downcast, hersmile directed to her feet. ‘I wasnot injured, I was only frightened.Ishraq is resting and recovering.She will be better in the morning,I am sure.’ Freize entered, banging thedoor, and started to slap downdishes onto the table. ‘Fricassée ofchicken – they killed an oldrooster specially. Stew of beefwith turnip, a pâté of pork – Iwouldn’t touch it myself. Somesausage which looks quite good
  • 380. and a few slices of ham.’ He wentback out and came in again withmore dishes. ‘Some marchpanefrom the local market which tastesalmost like the real thing, but Iwouldn’t swear to its youth; somepastries which the goodwife madeherself, I saw them come out ofthe oven and I tasted them foryour safety and approve them.They have no fruit here at all butsome apples which are so greenthat they are certain to half-killyou, and some sugared chestnutswhich they have saved for visitinggentry for a good year. So I wouldnot answer for them.’ ‘I am sorry,’ Luca said to Isolde. ‘No,’ she said with a smile. ‘Heis very engaging and probablytruthful, which matters more.’ ‘Some very good wine, that Itook the liberty of tasting for you
  • 381. in the cellar, which would do mylady no harm at all.’ Freize wasencouraged by Isolde’s praise intopouring the wine with a flourish.‘Some small ale to quench yourthirst that they brew here fromthe mountain water, and isactually rather good. You wouldn’tdrink the water in any case, butyou probably could here. And ifyou fancy a couple of eggs I canget them boiled or scrambled upas you wish.’ ‘He likes to think he is devotedto my service, and really he isvery good to me,’ Luca said in anundertone. ‘And moreover,’ Freize said,bearing down upon Isolde, ‘thereis a nice sweet wine for yourvoider course, and some goodbread coming out of the ovennow. They don’t have wheat, of
  • 382. course, but the rye bread is sweetand light, being made with somekind of honey – which Iestablished by a long conversationwith the cook who is no other thanthe goodwife, and a very goodwife, I would think. She says thatthe gown becomes you betterthan her, and so it does.’ ‘But sometimes, of course, he isquite unendurable,’ Luca finished.‘Freize, please serve the meal insilence.’ ‘Silence, he says.’ Freize noddedat Isolde with a conspiratorialsmile. ‘And silent I am. See me:utterly silent. I am reticent, youknow. Reticent.’ She could not help but laugh asFreize folded lip over lip, put allthe remaining dishes on the table,bowed low, and stood with hisback to the door, facing the room
  • 383. like a perfect servant. BrotherPeter sat down and started to helphimself to the dishes, with hismanuscript beside him and his inkpot adjacent to his wine glass. ‘I see that you are questioningme, as well as feeding me,’ shesaid to Luca. ‘As the sacred Mass,’ BrotherPeter answered for him. ‘Whereyou have to answer for your souland your faith before you partake.Can you answer for your soul, mylady?’ ‘I have done nothing that I amashamed of,’ she said steadily. ‘The attack on the deadwoman?’ Luca shot a quelling look atBrother Peter but Isolde answeredwithout fear. ‘It was no attack. Wehad to know what she had beengiven to eat. And by discovering
  • 384. that she had been poisoned wesaved the others. I knew SisterAugusta, and you did not. I tellyou: she would have been gladthat we did that to her – afterdeath – so that we could save hersisters pain in their lives. Wefound the berries of belladonna inher belly, which proved that thenuns were being poisoned, thatthey were not possessed or goingmad as we all feared. I hoped wecould have given you the berriesas evidence and saved the abbeyfrom my brother and the LadyAlmoner.’ Luca spooned the fricassée ofchicken onto a big slice of ryebread and passed it to her.Daintily, she produced a fork fromthe sleeve of her gown and atethe meat from the top of thebread. None of them had seen
  • 385. such table manners before. Lucaquite forgot his questions. Freizeat the doorway was transfixed. ‘I’ve never seen such a thing,’Luca remarked. ‘It’s called a fork,’ Isolde said, asif it were quite ordinary. ‘They usethem in the court of France. Foreating. My father gave me thisone.’ ‘Never eaten anything thatcouldn’t be speared on the tip of adagger,’ Freize offered from thedoorway. ‘Enough,’ Luca advised this mostinterfering servant. ‘Or sucked it up,’ Freize said. Hepaused for a moment, to explainmore clearly. ‘If soup.’ ‘“If soup!”’ Luca turned on himwrathfully. ‘“If soup!” For God’ssake, be silent. No, better still,wait in the kitchen.’
  • 386. ‘Keeping the door,’ Freize said,motioning that his work wasessential. ‘Keeping the door fromintruders.’ ‘God knows, I would rather havean intruder, I would rather have aband of brigands burst in, thanhave you commenting oneverything that takes place.’ Freize shook his head inremorse and once again foldedlower lip over upper lip to indicatehis future silence. ‘Like the grave,’he said to Luca. ‘You go on. Doingwell: probing but respectful. Don’tmind me.’ Luca turned back to Isolde. ‘Youdon’t need an interrogation,’ hesaid. ‘But you must understandthat we cannot release you unlesswe are convinced of yourinnocence. Eat your dinner and tellme honestly what happened at
  • 387. the abbey and what you plan foryour future.’ ‘May I ask you what happenedat the abbey? Have you closed itdown?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘I will tell youmore later, but we left the abbeywith the nuns in prayer and a newLady Abbess will be appointed.’ ‘The Lady Almoner?’ ‘Dead,’ was all he told her. ‘Nowyou tell me all that you know.’ Isolde ate a little more and thenput the slice of bread to one side.Brother Peter served the ragoutonto her slice of bread, anddipped his pen in the ink. ‘When I came to the abbey, Iwas grieving for my father andopposed to his wishes,’ she saidhonestly. ‘Ishraq came with me –we have never been parted sincemy father brought her and her
  • 388. mother home from the Holy Land.’ ‘She is your slave?’ BrotherPeter asked. Vehemently, Isolde shook herhead. ‘She is free. Just becauseshe is of Moorish descenteveryone always thinks she isenslaved. My father honoured andrespected her mother and gaveher a Christian burial when shedied when Ishraq was seven yearsold. Ishraq is a free woman, asher mother was free.’ ‘Freer than you?’ Luca asked. He saw her flush. ‘Yes, as itturns out. For I was bound by theterms of my father’s will to jointhe abbey, and now that I havelost my place I am a wantedcriminal.’ ‘What were you doing with thebody of Sister Augusta?’ She leaned forwards, fixing her
  • 389. dark blue gaze on him. Luca wouldhave sworn she was speaking thetruth. ‘Ishraq trained with theMoorish physicians in Spain. Myfather took us both to the Spanishcourt when he was advising themabout a new crusade. Ishraqstudied with one of the greatestdoctors: she studied herbs, drugsand poisons. We suspected thatthe nuns were being drugged, andwe knew that I was having themost extraordinary dreams andwaking with wounds in my hands.’ ‘You had the stigmata on yourown hands?’ Luca interrupted her. ‘I believed that I did,’ she said,suddenly downcast at thememory. ‘At first I was soconfused that I thought the markswere true: painful miracles.’ ‘Was it you that came to myroom and showed me your hands?’
  • 390. Silently, she nodded. ‘There is no shame in it,’ Lucasaid gently to her. ‘It feels like a sin,’ she saidquietly. ‘To show the wounds ofOur Lord and to wake so troubled,after dreams of running andscreaming . . .’ ‘You thought it was the drugbelladonna that made you dream?’ ‘Ishraq thought it so. Shethought that many of the nunswere taking the drug. Ishraq neverate in the refectory, she ate withthe servants, and she never hadthe dreams. None of the servantswere having dreams. Only thesisters who ate the refectorybread were affected. When SisterAugusta died so suddenly Ishraqthought that her heart had ceasedto beat under the influence of thedrug; she knew that if you have
  • 391. too much it kills you. We decidedto open her belly to look for theberries.’ Brother Peter shaded his eyeswith his hands, as if he could stillsee the two of them, bloodied tothe elbow, about their terriblework. ‘It was a very great sin to touchthe body,’ Luca prompted her. ‘Itis a crime as well as a sin to toucha corpse.’ ‘Not to Ishraq.’ She defendedher friend. ‘She is not of our faith,she does not believe in theresurrection of the body. To her itwas no greater sin than examiningan animal. You can accuse her ofnothing but of practising the craftof medicine.’ ‘It was a great sin for you,’ hepersisted. ‘And surely unbearable?How could you – a young lady –
  • 392. do such a thing?’ She bowed her head. ‘For me itwas a sin. But I thought it had tobe done, and I would not leaveIshraq to do it alone. I thought Ishould be . . .’ She paused. ‘Ithought I should be courageous. Iam the Lady Lucretili. I thought Ishould be as brave as the name Ibear. And at least we saw theberries in her belly, dark specks ofthe dried berries.’ She put herhand into the pocket of her gownand brought out a couple of flecksof dark hard berries likepeppercorns. ‘We found these.This is proof of what we weredoing, and what we found.’ Luca hesitated. ‘You took thesefrom the dead woman’s belly?’ heasked. She nodded. ‘It had to be done,’she said. ‘How else could we
  • 393. prove to you that the nuns werebeing fed belladonna berries?’ Gingerly, Luca took them, andquickly passed them over toBrother Peter. ‘Did you know theLady Almoner was working withyour brother?’ She nodded, sadly. ‘I knewthere was something betweenthem, but I never asked. I shouldhave demanded the truth – Ialways felt that she . . .’ She brokeoff. ‘I didn’t know, I saw nothingfor sure. But I sensed that theywere . . .’ ‘Were what?’ ‘Could they possibly have beenlovers?’ she asked, very low. ‘Is itpossible? Or is it my jealousimagining? And my envy of herbeauty?’ ‘Why would you say such athing? Of the Lady Almoner?’
  • 394. She shrugged. ‘I sometimesthink things, or see things, oralmost smell things, that are notvery clear, or not apparent toothers . . . in this case it was as ifshe belonged to him, as if she was. . . his shirt.’ ‘His shirt?’ Luca repeated. Again she shook her head as ifto shake away a vision. ‘As if hisscent was upon her. I can’t explainbetter than that.’ ‘Do you have the Sight?’ BrotherPeter interrupted, staring at herover the top of his quill. ‘No.’ She shook her head inrapid denial. ‘No, nothing like that.Nothing so certain, nothing soclear. I would not attend to it if Idid have, I don’t set myself up assome kind of seer. I have a senseof things, that is all.’ ‘But you sensed that she was
  • 395. his woman?’ She nodded. ‘But I had noevidence, nothing I could accuseher of. It was just like a whisper,like the silk of her petticoat.’ A rumbling cough from thedoorway reminded the men that itwas Freize who had first noted thesilk petticoat. ‘It’s hardly a crime to wear a silkpetticoat,’ Brother Peter saidirritably. ‘It was a suggestion,’ she saidthoughtfully. ‘That she was notwhat she seemed, that the abbeyunder her command was not as itseemed. Not as it should be. But .. .’ She shrugged. ‘I was new tothe life, and she seemed in chargeof everything. I did not questionher and I did not challenge herrule of the abbey at first. I shouldhave done so. I should have sent
  • 396. for an inquirer at once.’ ‘How did you get out of thecellar beneath the gatehouse?’Brother Peter suddenly changedthe course of questioning, hopingto throw her. ‘How did you get outand escape when there werehandcuffs and leg-cuffs and thecellar was dug into solid stone?’ Luca frowned at the harshnessof his tone, but Brother Peter justwaited for the answer, his penpoised. ‘It’s the major charge,’ heremarked quietly to Luca. ‘It’s theonly evidence of witchcraft. Thework of the slave is the work of aheretic, she is not under thecommand of the Church. Theattack on the body is the otherwoman’s work also – we mightthink of it as evil but the heretic isnot under our jurisdiction. TheLady Abbess has committed no
  • 397. crime, but her escape issuspicious. Her escape looks likewitchcraft. She has to explain it.’ ‘How did you get out?’ Lucaasked her. ‘Think carefully beforeyou reply.’ She hesitated. ‘You make meafraid,’ she said. ‘Afraid to speak.’ ‘You should be afraid,’ Lucawarned her. ‘If you got out of thehandcuffs and the cellar bymagical means or with theassistance of the Devil then youwill face a charge of witchcraft forthat alone. I can acquit you oftampering with the dead woman,but I would have to charge youwith invoking the Devil to aid yourescape.’ She drew a breath. ‘I can’t tellyou,’ she started. ‘I can’t tell youanything that makes sense.’ Brother Peter’s pen was poised
  • 398. over the page. ‘You had betterthink of something; this is the oneremaining charge against you.Getting out of the manacles andthrough the walls is witchcraft.Only witches can walk throughwalls.’ There was a terrible silence asIsolde looked down at her handsand the men waited for heranswer. ‘What did you do?’ Luca saidquietly. She shook her head. ‘Truly, Idon’t know.’ ‘What happened?’ ‘It was a mystery.’ ‘Was it witchcraft?’ BrotherPeter asked. There was a long painfulsilence. ‘I let her out,’ Freize suddenlyvolunteered, stepping into the
  • 399. room from his post at the door. Brother Peter rounded on him.‘You! Why?’ ‘Mercy,’ Freize said shortly.‘Justice. It was obvious they haddone nothing. It wasn’t thempanning for gold and swishingaround in silk petticoats. Thatbrother of hers would have burnedher the moment he got his handson her, the Lady Almoner had thepyres built ready. I waited till youwere all busy in the yard, decidingwhat should be done, then Islipped down to the cell, releasedthem, helped them up the ladder,got them into the stable yard onhorses, and sent them on theirway.’ ‘You freed my suspects?’ Lucaasked him, disbelievingly. ‘Little lord.’ Freize spread hishands apologetically. ‘You were
  • 400. going to burn two innocentwomen, caught up in theexcitement of the moment. Wouldyou have listened to me? No. For Iam well-known as a fool. Wouldyou have listened to them? No.For the Lady Almoner had turnedyour head and this lady’s brotherwas quick and ready with a torch.I knew you would thank me in theend, and here we are, with youthanking me.’ ‘I don’t thank you!’ Lucaexclaimed, angry beyondmeasure. ‘I should dismiss youfrom my service and charge youwith interfering with a papalinquiry!’ ‘Then the lady will thank me,’Freize said cheerfully. ‘And if shedoesn’t, maybe the pretty slavewill.’ ‘She’s not my slave,’ Isolde said,
  • 401. quite at a loss. ‘And you will findthat she never thanks anyone.Especially a man.’ ‘Perhaps she will come to valueme,’ Freize said with dignity.‘When she knows me better.’ ‘She will never know you betterfor you are about to be dismissed,’Luca said furiously. ‘Seems harsh,’ Freize said,glancing at Brother Peter.‘Wouldn’t you say? Given that itwas me that stopped us fromburning two innocent women, andthen saved all five of us from thebrigands. Not to mention gainingsome valuable horses?’ ‘You interfered with the courseof my inquiry and released myprisoners,’ Luca insisted. ‘Whatcan I do but dismiss you and sendyou back to the monastery indisgrace?’
  • 402. ‘For your own good,’ Freizeexplained. ‘And theirs. Saving youall from yourselves.’ Luca turned to Brother Peter. ‘But why did you fasten up thehandcuffs after you had releasedthem?’ Brother Peter asked. Freize paused. ‘For confusion,’he said gravely. ‘To cause moreconfusion.’ Isolde, despite her anxiety,choked back a laugh. ‘You havecertainly caused that,’ she said. Asmall smile exchanged betweenthem made Luca suddenly frown. ‘And do you swear you did this?’he asked tightly. ‘Howeverridiculous you are?’ ‘I do,’ Freize said. Luca turned to Brother Peter.‘This vindicates them from thecharge of witchcraft.’ ‘The report has gone,’ Brother
  • 403. Peter ruled thoughtfully. ‘We saidthat the captives were missing,accused of witchcraft, but thattheir accusers were definitelyguilty. The matter is closed unlessyou want to reopen it. We don’thave to report that we met themagain. It is not our job to arrestthem if we have no evidence ofwitchcraft. We’re not holding aninquiry now. Our inquiry is closed.’ ‘Sleeping dogs,’ Freizevolunteered. Luca rounded on him. ‘What inhell do you mean now?’ ‘Better let them lie. That’s whatpeople say. Let sleeping dogs lie.Your inquiry is completed,everyone is happy. We’re off onsome other damn fool mission.And the two women who werewrongly accused are free as littlebirds of the air. Why make
  • 404. trouble?’ Luca was about to argue, butthen he paused. He turnedtowards Isolde. After one powerfulblue gaze that she had shot atFreize when he had confessed toreleasing them, she had returnedto studying her hands held in herlap. ‘Is it true that Freize releasedyou? He let you go? As he says?’ She nodded. ‘Why did you not say so atonce?’ ‘I didn’t want to get him intotrouble.’ Luca sighed. It was unlikely, butif Freize was holding to hisconfession and Isolde would offerno other explanation, then hecould not see what more heshould do. ‘Who is going tobelieve this?’
  • 405. ‘Better this, than you trying totell everyone that we meltedthrough leg-cuffs and handcuffs,’she pointed out. ‘Who wouldbelieve that?’ Luca glanced at Brother Peter.‘Will you write that we aresatisfied that our servant releasedthem, exceeding his duties butbelieving that he was doing theright thing? And that now we areclear that there was no witchcraft?And they are free to go?’ Brother Peter was wearing hismost dour look. ‘If you instruct meso to do,’ he said pedantically. ‘Ithink there is more to it than yourservant stepping out of his place.But since he always steps out ofhis place and since you alwaysallow it, and since you seemdetermined that these womenshall go free, I can write this.’
  • 406. ‘You will clear my name?’ Isoldepressed. ‘I will not accuse you ofescaping by witchcraft,’ BrotherPeter specified. ‘That’s all I amprepared to do. I don’t know thatyou are innocent of everything;but as no woman is innocent sincethe sin of Eve, I am prepared toagree that there is no evidenceand no charge to set against youfor now.’ ‘It’s good enough,’ Luca ruled.‘Anyway,’ he turned to Isolde,‘what are you going to do now?’ She sighed. ‘I have beenpuzzled as to what I should do.But I think I will go to the son ofmy father’s friend, a man who washis constant companion oncrusade, my godfather, I can trusthim and he has a reputation forbeing a tenacious fighter. I will
  • 407. ask him to clear my name, and toride with me against my brother.It seems he did all of this to stealmy inheritance from me, to killme. So I will take his inheritancefrom him. I shall take back what ismine.’ ‘There is more than you know,’Luca told her. ‘It is worse than youknow. He had commanded theLady Almoner to set the nuns topan for gold in the stream in yourwoods.’ She looked puzzled. ‘Gold?’ ‘It’s probably why your brotherwas determined to drive you outof the abbey. There may be afortune in gold in the hills,draining out into the stream indust.’ ‘They were panning for gold?’ He nodded. ‘He was using theLady Almoner to steal gold from
  • 408. your abbey lands. Now she is deadand you have run away, the abbeyand the lands and the gold are allhis.’ He saw her jaw harden. ‘He haswon my home, my inheritance,and a fortune as well?’ Luca nodded. ‘He left the LadyAlmoner to her death and rodeaway.’ She turned on Brother Peter.‘But you didn’t charge him! Youdidn’t pursue him for all the sinssince Adam! Though I amresponsible for everything done byEve?’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Hecommitted no crime that we sawat the time. Now he pans for hisown gold on his own land.’ ‘I will hold him to account. I willreturn and take back my lands. Iam no longer bound by obedience
  • 409. to my father’s will when mybrother is such a bad guardian ofour family honour. I will drive himout as he drove me away. I will goto my godfather’s son and gethelp.’ ‘Was your godfather a man ofsubstance? Your brother has hisown castle and a small army tocommand.’ ‘He was Count Wladislaw ofWallachia,’ she said proudly. ‘Hisson is the new count. I will go tohim.’ Brother Peter’s head jerked up.‘You are the goddaughter of CountWladislaw?’ he asked curiously. ‘Yes, my father always said togo to him in time of trouble.’ Brother Peter lowered his eyesand shook his head inwonderment. ‘She has a powerfulfriend in him,’ he said quietly to
  • 410. Luca. ‘He could crush her brotherin a moment.’ ‘Where does he live?’ ‘It’s a long journey,’ sheadmitted. ‘To the east. He is atthe court of Hungary.’ ‘That would be beyond Bosnia?’Freize abandoned any attempt atstanding in silence by the doorand came into the room. ‘Yes.’ ‘Further east than that?’ She nodded. ‘How are two pretty girls likeyou and the slave going to makethat journey without someonestealing from you . . . or worse?’Freize asked bluntly. ‘They willskin you alive.’ She looked at Freize and smiledat him. ‘Do you not think that Godwill protect us?’ ‘No,’ he said flatly. ‘My
  • 411. experience is that He rarelyattends to the obvious.’ ‘Then we will travel withcompanions, with their guards,wherever we can. And take ourchances when we cannot. BecauseI have to go. I have no-one else toturn to. And I will have myrevenge on my brother, I willregain my inheritance.’ Freize nodded cheerfully atLuca. ‘Might as well have burnedthem when you got the chance,’he observed. ‘For you are sendingthem out to die anyway.’ ‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous,’ Lucasaid impatiently. ‘We will protectthem.’ ‘We have our mission!’ BrotherPeter objected. Luca turned to Isolde. ‘You maytravel with us under our protectionuntil our ways diverge. We are on
  • 412. a mission of inquiry, appointed bythe Holy Father himself. We don’tyet know our route but you maytravel with us until our ways part.’ ‘Very important,’ Freizesupplemented, with a nod to theyoung woman. ‘We are veryimportant.’ ‘You can accompany us andwhen you find safe and reputabletravellers on the road you cantransfer to them, and travel withthem.’ She bowed her head. ‘I thankyou. I thank you for myself and forIshraq. And we will not delay nordistract you.’ ‘It is absolutely certain that theywill do both,’ Brother Peterremarked sourly. ‘We can help them on their wayat least,’ Luca ruled. ‘I should give you my name,’ the
  • 413. young woman said. ‘I am LadyAbbess no longer.’ ‘Of course,’ Luca said. ‘I am Lady Isolde of Lucretili.’ Luca bowed his head to her, butFreize stepped forwards, bowedlow, his head almost to his knees,straightened up and thumped hisclenched fist against his heart.‘Lady Isolde, you may commandme,’ he said grandly. She was surprised, and giggledfor a moment. Freize looked at herreproachfully. ‘I would havethought you would have beenbrought up to understand aknight’s service when it is offered?’ ‘He is a knight now?’ BrotherPeter asked Luca. ‘Seems so,’ came the amusedresponse. ‘Say a squire then,’ Freizeamended. ‘I will be your squire.’
  • 414. Lady Isolde rose to her feet andextended her hand to Freize. ‘Youdo right to remind me to respondgraciously to an honourable offerof service. I accept your serviceand I am glad of it, Freize. Thankyou.’ With a triumphant glance atLuca, Freize bowed and touchedher fingers with his lips. ‘I amyours to command,’ he said. ‘I take it you will house andclothe and feed him?’ Lucademanded. ‘He eats like tenhorses.’ ‘My service, as the lady wellunderstood, is that of the heart,’Freize said with dignity. ‘I am hersto command if there is a knightlyquest or a bold venture. The restof the time I carry on as yourmanservant, of course.’ ‘I am very grateful,’ Isolde
  • 415. murmured. ‘And as soon as I havea bold venture or knightly quest Iwill let you know.’When Isolde entered thebedroom, Ishraq was sleeping, butas soon as she heard the softfootsteps, she opened her eyesand said, ‘How was dinner? Arewe arrested?’ ‘We’re free,’ Isolde said. ‘Freizesuddenly told his master that itwas he who released us from thecellar under the gatehouse.’ Ishraq raised herself up ontoone elbow. ‘Did he say that? Why?And did they believe him?’ ‘He was convincing. He insisted.I don’t think they wholly believedhim but at any rate, they accepted
  • 416. it.’ ‘Did he say why he confessed tosuch a thing?’ ‘No. I think it was to be ofservice to us. And better thanthat, they have said that we cantravel with them while our roadslie together.’ ‘Where are they going?’ ‘They follow orders. They gowhere they are told. But there isonly one way out of the village sowe will all go east for the timebeing. We can travel with themand we will be safer on the roadthan with strangers or alone.’ ‘I don’t like Brother Peter much.’ ‘He’s all right. Freize swore tobe my knight errant.’ Ishraq giggled. ‘He has a goodheart. You might be glad of himone day. He certainly served ustonight.’
  • 417. Isolde stripped off the bluegown, and came in her chemise tothe side of the bed. ‘Is thereanything you want? A small ale?Shall I sponge your bruises?’ ‘No, I am ready to sleep again.’ The bed creaked gently asIsolde got in beside her.‘Goodnight, my sister,’ she said, asshe had said almost every night ofher life. ‘Goodnight, dearest.’
  • 418. VITTORITO, ITALY, OCTOBER 1453The little party lingered for twomore days in the village whileIshraq’s bruises faded and shegrew strong again. Isolde andIshraq bought light rust-colouredgowns for travelling, and thickwoollen capes for the cold nights,
  • 419. and on the third day they wereready to set out at sunrise. Freize had pillion saddles ontwo of the horses. ‘I thought youwould ride behind the lord,’ hesaid to Isolde. ‘And the servantwould come up behind me.’ ‘No,’ Ishraq said flatly. ‘We rideour own horses.’ ‘It’s tiring,’ Freize warned her,‘and the roads are rough. Mostladies like to ride behind a man.You can sit sideways, you don’thave to go astride. You’ll be morecomfortable.’ ‘We ride alone,’ Isoldeconfirmed. ‘On our own horses.’ Freize made a face and winkedat Ishraq. ‘Another time, then.’ ‘I don’t think there will be anytime when I will want to ridebehind you,’ she said coolly. He unfastened the girth on the
  • 420. pillion saddle and swept it fromthe horse’s back. ‘Ah, you say thatnow,’ he said confidently, ‘butthat’s because you hardly knowme. Many a lass has beenindifferent at first meeting butafter a while . . .’ He snapped hisfingers. ‘After a while what?’ Isoldeasked him, smiling. ‘They can’t help themselves,’Freize said confidentially. ‘Don’task me why. It’s a gift I have.Women and horses, they bothlove me. Women and horses –most animals really – just like tobe close to me. They just like me.’ Luca came out to the stableyard, carrying his saddle pack. ‘Areyou not tacked up yet?’ ‘Just changing the saddles. Theladies want to ride on their own,though I have been to the trouble
  • 421. of buying two pillion saddles forthem. They are ungrateful.’ ‘Well, of course they would ridealone!’ Luca said impatiently. Henodded a bow to the youngwomen, and when Freize led thefirst horse to the mounting blockhe went to Isolde and took herhand to help her up as shestepped to the top of themounting block, put her foot in thebroad stirrup and swung herselfinto the saddle. Soon, the five of them weremounted and, with the other fourhorses and the donkey in a stringbehind them, they rode out ontothe little track that they wouldfollow through the forest. Luca went first, with Isolde andIshraq side by side just behindhim. Behind them came BrotherPeter and then Freize, a stout
  • 422. cudgel in a loop at the side of hissaddle and the spare horsesbeside him. It was a pleasant ride throughthe beech woods. The trees werestill holding their copper-brownleaves and sheltered the travellersfrom the bright autumn sun. Asthe path climbed higher theycame out of the woods and tookthe stony track through the upperpastures. It was very quiet;sometimes they heard the tinkleof a few bells from a distant herdof goats, but mostly there wasnothing but the whisper of thewind. Luca reined back to ride withthe two girls and asked Ishraqabout her time in Spain. ‘The Lord Lucretili must havebeen a most unusual man, toallow a young woman in his
  • 423. household to study with Moorishphysicians,’ he observed. ‘He was,’ Ishraq said. ‘He had agreat respect for the learning ofmy people, he wanted me tostudy. If he had lived I think hewould have sent me back toSpanish universities, where thescholars of my people studyeverything from the stars in thesky to the movement of thewaters of the sea. Some peoplesay that they are all governed bythe same laws. We have todiscover what those laws mightbe.’ ‘Were you the only womanthere?’ She shook her head. ‘No, in mycountry women can learn andteach too.’ ‘And did you learn thenumbers?’ Luca asked her
  • 424. curiously. ‘And the meaning ofzero?’ She shook her head. ‘I have nohead for mathematics, though ofcourse I know the numbers,’ shesaid. ‘My father believed that awoman could understand as wellas a man,’ Isolde remarked. ‘Helet Ishraq study whatever shewanted.’ ‘And you?’ Luca turned to her.‘Did you attend the university inSpain?’ She shook her head. ‘My fatherintended me to be a lady tocommand Lucretili,’ she said. ‘Hetaught me how to calculate theprofits from the land, how tocommand the loyalty of people,how to manage land and choosethe crops, how to command theguard of a castle under attack.’
  • 425. She made a funny little face. ‘Andhe had me taught the skills a ladyshould have – love of fine clothes,dancing, music, speakinglanguages, writing, reading,singing, poetry.’ ‘She envies me the skills hetaught me,’ Ishraq said with ahidden smile. ‘He taught her to bea lady and me to be a power inthe world.’ ‘What woman would not want tobe a lady of a great castle?’ Lucawondered. ‘I would want it,’ Isolde said. ‘Ido want it. But I wish I had beentaught to fight as well.’ At sunset on the first evening,they pulled up their horses beforean isolated monastery. Ishraq andIsolde exchanged an anxiousglance. ‘The hue and cry?’ shemuttered to Luca.
  • 426. ‘It won’t have reached here. Idoubt your brother sent out anymessages once he was away fromthe abbey. I would guess hesigned the writ only todemonstrate his own innocence.’ She nodded. ‘Just enough tokeep me away,’ she said. ‘Namingme as a witch and declaring medead, leaves him with the castleand the abbey under his control,giving him the abbey lands andthe gold. He wins everything.’ Freize dismounted and went topull the great ring outside theclosed door. The bell in thegatehouse rang loudly, and theporter heaved the double gatesopen. ‘Welcome, travellers, in thename of God,’ he said cheerfully.‘How many are you?’ ‘One young lord, one clerk, oneservant, one lady and her
  • 427. companion,’ Freize replied. ‘Andnine horses and one donkey. Theycan go in the meadow or in thestables as suits you.’ ‘We can put them out on goodgrass,’ the lay brother said,smiling. ‘Come in.’ He welcomed them into a bigyard and Brother Peter and Lucaswung down from their saddles.Luca turned to Isolde’s horse andheld up his arms to lift her down.She smiled briefly and gesturedthat she could get down on herown, then swung her leg and, litheas a boy, jumped to the ground. Freize went to Ishraq’s horseand held out his arm. ‘Don’t jump,’he said. ‘You’ll faint the momentyou touch the ground. You’vebeen near to fainting any time thislast five miles.’ She gathered her dark veil
  • 428. across her mouth and looked athim over the top of it. ‘And don’t look daggers at meeither,’ Freize said cheerfully.‘You’d have done better behindme with your arms around mywaist and my back to lean on, butyou’re as stubborn as the donkey.Come on down, girl, and let mehelp you.’ Surprisingly, she did as hesuggested and leaned towardshim and let herself fall into hisarms. He took her gently and sether on her feet with his armaround her to keep her steady.Isolde went to her and supportedher. ‘I didn’t realise . . .’ ‘Just tired.’ The porter gave them a light tothe guesthouse, indicated thewomen’s rooms on one side of thehigh wall and the entry to the
  • 429. men’s rooms on the other. Heshowed them the refectory andtold them that they might gettheir dinner with the monks afterVespers, while the ladies would beserved in the guesthouse. Then heleft them with lit candles and ablessing. ‘Goodnight,’ Isolde said to Luca,bowing her head to Brother Peter. ‘I’ll see you in the morning,’Luca said to both women. ‘Weshould leave straight after Prime.’ Isolde nodded. ‘We’ll be ready.’ Ishraq curtseyed to the twomen and nodded at Freize. ‘Pillion saddle tomorrow?’ heasked her. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Because you were overtiredwith the ride today?’ Freize said,driving the point home. She showed him a warm frank
  • 430. smile before she tucked her veilacross her face. ‘Don’t gloat,’ shesaid. ‘I’m tired to my very bones.You were right, I was wrong, andfoolishly proud. I’ll ride pilliontomorrow and be glad of it; but ifyou mock me I will pinch youevery step of the way.’ Freize ducked his head. ‘Not aword,’ he promised her. ‘You willfind me reticent to a fault.’ ‘Reticent?’ He nodded. ‘It is my newambition. It’s my new word:reticent.’They left immediately after Primeand breakfast, and the sun was upon their right-hand side as theyheaded north. ‘Thing is,’ Freize
  • 431. remarked to Ishraq quietly as sherode behind him, seated sideways,her feet resting on the pillionsupport, one hand around hiswaist, tucked into his belt, ‘thingis, we never know where we aregoing. We just go along, steady asthe donkey, who knows no morethan us but plods along, and thenthat pompous jackal suddenlybrings out a piece of paper andtells us we are to go somewhereelse entirely and get into Godknows what trouble.’ ‘But of course,’ she said.‘Because you are travelling as aninquiry. You have to go andinquire into things.’ ‘I don’t see why we can’t knowwhere we are going,’ Freize said.‘And then a man might have achance of making sure we stoppedat a good inn.’
  • 432. ‘Ah, it is a matter of dinner,’ shesaid, smiling behind her veil. ‘Iunderstand now.’ Freize patted the hand that washolding his belt. ‘There are veryfew things more important thandinner to a hardworking man,’ hesaid firmly. Then, ‘Hulloah? What’sthis?’ Ahead of them in the road werehalf a dozen men, struggling withpitchforks and flails to hold downan animal which was netted androped and twisting about in thedirt. Freize halted and Isolde, Lucaand Peter pulled up behind him. ‘What have you got there?’ Lucacalled to the men. One of the men broke from thestruggle and came towards them.‘We’d be glad of your help,’ hesaid. ‘If we could rope thecreature to two of your horses
  • 433. we’d be able to get it along theroad. We can’t get forwards orbackwards at the moment.’ ‘What is it?’ Luca asked. The man crossed himself. ‘TheLord save us, it is a werewolf,’ hesaid. ‘It has been plaguing ourvillage and forests every full moonfor a year but last night mybrother and I, and our friends, andcousin, went out and trapped it.’ Brother Peter crossed himself,and Isolde copied him. ‘How didyou trap it?’ ‘We planned it for months, trulymonths. We didn’t dare to go outat night – we were afraid hispower would be too strong underthe moon. We waited till it was awaning moon when we knew thathis power would be weakened andshrunken. Then we dug a deep piton the track to the village and we
  • 434. staked out a haunch of mutton onthe far side. We thought he wouldcome to the village as he alwaysdoes and smell the meat. Wehoped he would follow the track tothe meat and he did. We coveredthe pit with light branches andleaves, and he didn’t see it. Itcollapsed beneath him and he fellin. We kept him there for days,with nothing to eat so heweakened. Then we dropped thenets on him and pulled them tightand hauled him out of the pit.Now we have him.’ ‘And what are you going to dowith him?’ Isolde looked fearfullyat the writhing animal, laden withnets, struggling on the road. ‘We are going to cage it in thevillage till we can make a silverarrow, as only a silver arrow cankill it, and then we are going to
  • 435. shoot it in the heart and bury it atthe crossroads. Then it will liequiet and we will be safe in ourbeds again.’ ‘Pretty small for a wolf,’ Freizeobserved, peering at the thrashingnet. ‘More like a dog.’ ‘It grows bigger with the moon,’the man said. ‘When the moon isfull it waxes too – as big as thebiggest wolf. And then, though webolt our doors and shutter ourwindows, we can hear it round thevillage, trying the doors, sniffingat the locks, trying to get in.’ Isolde shuddered. ‘Will you help us get it to thevillage? We’re going to put it inthe bear pit, where we bait thebears at the inn, but it’s a goodmile away. We didn’t think itwould struggle so, and we’reafraid to get too close for fear of
  • 436. being bitten.’ ‘If it bites you, you turn into awerewolf too,’ a man said fromthe back. ‘I swore to my wife thatI wouldn’t go too close.’ Freize looked across their headsat Luca, and at a nod from hismaster, got down from his coband went to the bundle in theroad. Under the pile of nets andtangles of rope he could just seean animal crouched down andcurled up. A dark angry eye lookedback at him; he saw small yellowteeth bared in a snarl. Two orthree of the men held their ropesout and Freize took one from oneside and then one from the otherside and tied them to two of thespare horses. ‘Here,’ he said toone of the men. ‘Lead the horsegently. Did you say two miles tothe village?’
  • 437. ‘Perhaps one and a half,’ theman said. The horse snorted infear and sidled as the bundle onthe road let out a howl. Then theropes were tightened and they setoff, dragging the helpless bundlealong behind them. Sometimesthe creature convulsed and rolledover, which caused the horses tojib in fear and the men leadingthem had to tighten their reinsand soothe them. ‘A bad business,’ Freize said toLuca as they entered the villagebehind the men, and saw theother villagers gather around withspades and axes and flails. ‘This is the very thing that wewere sent out to understand,’Brother Peter said to Luca. ‘I shallopen a report, and you can holdan inquiry. We can do it here,before continuing with our journey
  • 438. and our mission. You can findwhat evidence there is that this isa werewolf, half-beast, half-man,and then you can decide if itshould be put to death with asilver arrow or not.’ ‘I?’ Luca hesitated. ‘You are the inquirer,’ BrotherPeter reminded him. ‘Here is aplace to understand the fears andmap the rise of the Devil. Set upyour inquiry.’ Freize looked at him; Isoldewaited. Luca cleared his throat. ‘Iam an inquirer sent out by theHoly Father himself to discoverwrong-doing and error inChristendom,’ he called to thevillagers. There was a murmur ofinterest and respect. ‘I will hold aninquiry about this beast anddecide what is to be done with it,’he said. ‘Anyone who has been
  • 439. wronged by the beast or is fearfulof it, or knows anything about it,is to come to my room in the innand give evidence before me. In aday or two I shall tell you mydecision, which will be binding andfinal.’ Freize nodded. ‘Where’s thebear pit?’ he asked one of thefarmers, who was leading a horse. ‘In the yard of the inn,’ the mansaid. He nodded to the big doubledoors of the stable yard at theside of the inn. As the horsescame close, the villagers ranahead and threw the doors open.Inside the courtyard, under thewindows of the inn, there was abig circular arena. Once a year, a visiting bearleader would bring his chainedanimal to the village on a feastday and everyone would bet on
  • 440. how many dogs would be killed,and how close the bravest wouldget to the throat of the bear, untilthe bear leader declared it over,and the excitement was done foranother year. A stake in the centre showedwhere the bears were chained bythe leg when the dogs were set onthem. The arena had beenreinforced and made higher bylashed beams and planks so thatthe inner wall was nearly as highas the first-floor windows of theinn. ‘They can jump,’ the farmersaid. ‘Werewolves can jump,everyone knows that. We built ittoo high for the Devil himself.’ The villagers untied the ropesfrom the horses and pulled thebundle in the net towards the bearpit. It seemed to struggle morevigorously and to resist. A couple
  • 441. of the farmers took their pitchforksand pricked it onwards whichmade it howl in pain and snarl andlash out in its net. ‘And how are you going torelease it into the bear pit?’ Freizewondered aloud. There was a silence. Clearly thisstage had not been foreseen.‘We’ll just lock it in and leave it toget its own self free,’ someonesuggested. ‘I’m not going near it,’ anotherman said. ‘If it bites you once, you becomea werewolf too,’ a woman warned. ‘You die from the poison of itsbreath,’ another disagreed. ‘If it gets the taste of your bloodit hunts you till it has you,’someone volunteered. Brother Peter and Luca and thetwo women went into the front
  • 442. door of the inn and took rooms forthemselves and stables for thehorses. Luca also hired a diningroom that overlooked the bear pitin the yard and went to thewindow to see his servant, Freize,standing in the bear pit with thebeast squirming in its net besidehim. As he expected, Freize wasnot able to leave even a monstersuch as this netted and alone. ‘Get a bucket of water for it todrink, and a haunch of meat for itto eat when it gets itself free,’Freize said to the groom of theinn. ‘And maybe a loaf of bread incase it fancies it.’ ‘This is a beast from hell,’ thegroom protested. ‘I’m not waitingon it. I’m not stepping into the pitwith it. What if it breathes on me?’ Freize looked for a moment as ifhe would argue, but then he
  • 443. nodded his head. ‘So be it,’ hesaid. ‘Anyone here have anycompassion for the beast? No?Brave enough to catch it andtorment it but not brave enoughto feed it, eh? Well, I myself willget it some dinner, then, andwhen it has untied itself fromthese knots, and recovered frombeing dragged over the road for amile and a half, it can have a supof water and a bite of meat.’ ‘Mind it doesn’t bite you!’someone said and everyonelaughed. ‘It won’t bite me,’ Freizerejoined stolidly. ‘On account ofnobody touches me without myword, and on account of I wouldn’tbe so stupid as to be in here whenit gets loose. Unlike some, whohave lived alongside it andcomplained that they heard it
  • 444. sniffing at their door and yet tookmonths to capture the poor beast.’ A chorus of irritated argumentarose at this, which Freize simplyignored. ‘Anyone going to helpme?’ he asked again. ‘Well, in thatcase I will ask you all to leave, onaccount of the fact that I am not atravelling show.’ Most of them left, but some ofthe younger men stayed in theirplaces, on the platform builtoutside the arena so that aspectator could stand and lookover the barrier. Freize did notspeak again but merely stood,waiting patiently until theyshuffled their feet, cursed him forinterfering, and went. When the courtyard was emptyof people, Freize fetched a bucketof water from the pump, went tothe kitchen for a haunch of raw
  • 445. meat and a loaf of bread, then setthem down inside the arena,glancing up at the window whereLuca and the two women werelooking down. ‘And what the little lord makesof you, we will know in time,’Freize remarked to the humpednet, which shuffled andwhimpered a little. ‘But God willguide him to deal fairly with youeven if you are from Satan andmust die with a silver arrowthrough your heart. And I willkeep you fed and watered for youare one of God’s creatures even ifyou are one of the Fallen, which Idoubt was a matter of your ownchoosing.’
  • 446. Luca started his inquiry into thewerewolf as soon as they haddined. The two women went totheir bedroom, while the two men,Brother Peter and Luca, called inone witness after another to sayhow the werewolf had plaguedtheir village. All afternoon they listened tostories of noises in the night, thehandles of locked doors beinggently tried, and losses from theherds of sheep which roamed thepastures under the guidance ofthe boys of the village. The boysreported a great wolf, a singlewolf running alone, which wouldcome out of the forest and snatchaway a lamb that had strayed toofar from its mother. They said thatthe wolf sometimes ran on all fourlegs, sometimes stood up like aman. They were in terror of it, and
  • 447. would no longer take the sheep tothe upper pastures but insisted onstaying near the village. One lad,a six-year-old shepherd boy, toldthem that his older brother hadbeen eaten by the werewolf. ‘When was that?’ Luca asked. ‘Seven years ago, at least,’ theboy replied. ‘For I never knew him– he was taken the year before Iwas born, and my mother hasnever stopped mourning for him.’ ‘What happened?’ Luca asked. ‘These villagers have all sorts oftales,’ Brother Peter said quietly tohim. ‘Ten to one the boy is lying,or his brother died of somedisgusting disease that they don’twant to admit.’ ‘She was looking for a lamb, andhe was walking with her as healways did,’ the boy said. ‘She toldme that she sat down just for a
  • 448. moment and he sat on her lap. Hefell asleep in her arms and shewas so tired that she closed hereyes for only a moment, and whenshe woke he was gone. Shethought he had strayed a littleway from her and she called forhim and looked all round for himbut she never found him.’ ‘Absolute stupidity,’ BrotherPeter remarked. ‘But why did she think thewerewolf had taken him?’ Lucaasked. ‘She could see the marks of awolf in the wet ground round thestream,’ the boy said. ‘She ranabout and called and called, andwhen she could not find him shecame running home for my fatherand he went out for days, trackingdown the pack, but even he, whois the best hunter in the village,
  • 449. could not find them. That waswhen they knew it was a werewolfwho had taken my brother. Takenhim and disappeared, as they do.’ ‘I’ll see your mother,’ Lucadecided. ‘Will you ask her to cometo me?’ The boy hesitated. ‘She won’tcome,’ he said. ‘She grieves forhim still. She doesn’t like to talkabout it. She won’t want to talkabout it.’ Brother Peter leaned towardsLuca and spoke quietly to him.‘I’ve heard a tale like this a dozentimes,’ he said. ‘Likely the childhad something wrong with himand she quietly drowned him inthe stream and then came backwith a cock-and-bull story to tellthe husband. She won’t want tohave us asking about it, andthere’s no benefit in forcing the
  • 450. truth out of her. What’s done isdone.’ Luca turned to his clerk andraised his papers so that his facewas hidden from the boy. ‘BrotherPeter, I am conducting an inquiryhere into a werewolf. I will speakto everyone who has anyknowledge of such a satanicvisitor. You know that’s my duty.If along the way I discover avillage where baby-killing hasbeen allowed then I will inquireafter that too. It is my task toinquire into all the fears ofChristendom: everything – greatsins and small. It is my task toknow what is happening and if itforetells the end of days. Thedeath of a baby, the arrival of awerewolf, these are all evidence.’ ‘Do you have to knoweverything?’ Brother Peter
  • 451. demanded sceptically. ‘Can we letnothing go?’ ‘Everything,’ Luca nodded. ‘Andthat is my curse that I carry justlike the werewolf. He has to rageand savage. I have to know. But Iam in the service of God and he isin the service of the Devil and isdoomed to death.’ He turned back to the boy. ‘I’llcome to your mother.’ He got up from the table andthe two men with the boy – stillfaintly protesting and crimson tohis ears – led the way down thestairs and out of the inn. As theywere going out of the front door,Isolde and Ishraq were comingdown the stairs. ‘Where are you going?’ Isoldeasked. ‘To visit a farmer’s wife, thisyoung man’s mother,’ Luca said.
  • 452. The girls looked at BrotherPeter, whose face was impassivebut clearly disapproving. ‘Can we come too?’ Isoldeasked. ‘We were just going out towalk around.’ ‘It’s an inquiry, not a social call,’Brother Peter said. But Luca said, ‘Oh, why not?’and Isolde walked beside him,while the little shepherd boy, tornbetween embarrassment andpride at all the attention, wentahead. His sheepdog, which hadbeen lying in the shadow of a cartoutside the inn, pricked up its earsat the sight of him, and trotted athis heels. He led them out of the dustymarket square, up a small rough-cut flight of steps to a track thatwound up the side of themountain, following the course of
  • 453. a fast-flowing stream, and thenstopped abruptly at a little farm, apretty duck pond before the yard,a waterfall from the small cliffbehind it. A ramshackle roof ofruddy tiles topped a rough wall ofwattle and daub which had beenlime-washed many years ago andwas now a gentle buff colour.There was no glass in thewindows but the shutters stoodwide open to the afternoon sun.There were chickens in the yardand a pig with piglets in thewalled orchard to the side. In thefield beyond there were twoprecious cows, one with a calf,and as they walked up thecobbled track the front dooropened and a middle-aged womancame out, her hair tied up in ascarf, a hessian apron over herhomespun gown. She stopped in
  • 454. surprise at the sight of thewealthy strangers. ‘Good day to you,’ she said,looking from one to another.‘What are you doing, Tomas,bringing such fine folks here? Ihope he has been no trouble, sir?Can I offer you somerefreshment?’ ‘This is the man from the innwho brought the werewolf in,’Tomas said breathlessly. ‘Hewould come to see you, though Itold him not to.’ ‘You shouldn’t have told himanything at all,’ she observed. ‘It’snot for small boys, small dirtyboys, to speak with their betters.Go and fetch a jug of the best alefrom the still room, and don’t sayanother word. Sirs, ladies – willyou sit?’ She gestured to a bench set into
  • 455. the low stone wall before thehouse. Isolde and Ishraq took aseat and smiled up at her. ‘Werarely have company here,’ shesaid. ‘And never ladies.’ Tomas came out of the housecarrying two roughly carved three-legged stools and put them downfor Brother Peter and Luca, thendashed in again for the jug ofsmall ale, one glass and threemugs. Bashfully, he offered theglass to Isolde and then pouredale for everyone else into mugs. Luca and Brother Peter tooktheir seats and the woman stoodbefore them, one hand twistingher apron corner. ‘He is a goodboy,’ she said again. ‘He wouldn’tmean to talk out of turn. Iapologise if he offended you.’ ‘No, no, he was polite andhelpful,’ Luca said.
  • 456. ‘He’s a credit to you,’ Isoldeassured her. ‘And growing very big andstrong,’ Ishraq remarked. The mother’s pride beamed outof her face. ‘He is,’ she said. ‘Ithank the Lord for him every dayof his life.’ ‘But you had a previous boy.’Luca put down his mug and spokegently to her. ‘He told us that hehad an older brother.’ A shadow came across thewoman’s broad handsome faceand she looked suddenly weary. ‘Idid. God forgive me for taking myeye off him for a moment.’ At thethought of him she could notspeak; she turned her head away. ‘What happened?’ Isolde asked. ‘Alas, alas, I lost him. I lost himin a moment. God forgive me forthat moment. But I was a young
  • 457. mother and so weary that I fellasleep and in that moment he wasgone.’ ‘In the forest?’ Luca prompted. A silent nod confirmed the fact. Gently, Isolde rose to her feetand pressed the woman downonto the bench so that she couldsit. ‘Was he taken by wolves?’ sheasked quietly. ‘I believe he was,’ the womansaid. ‘There were rumours ofwolves in the woods even then,that was why I was looking for thelamb, hoping to find it beforenightfall.’ She gestured at thesheep in the field. ‘We don’t havea big flock. Every beast counts forus. I sat down for a moment. Myboy was tired so we sat to rest.He was not yet four years old, Godbless him. I lay down with him fora moment and fell asleep. When I
  • 458. woke he was gone.’ Isolde put a comforting hand onher shoulder. ‘We found his little shirt,’ thewoman continued, her voicetrembling with unspoken tears.‘But that was some months later.One of the lads found it when hewas bird’s-nesting in the forest.Found it under a bush.’ ‘Was there any blood on it?’Luca asked. She shook her head. ‘It waswashed through by rain,’ she said.‘But I took it to the priest and weheld a service for his innocentsoul. The priest said I should burymy love for him and have anotherchild – and then God gave meTomas.’ ‘The villagers have captured abeast that they say is a werewolf,’Brother Peter remarked. ‘Would
  • 459. you accuse the beast of murderingyour child?’ He expected her to flare out, tomake an accusation at once; butshe looked wearily at him as if shehad worried and thought aboutthis for too long already. ‘Ofcourse when I heard there was awerewolf I thought it might havetaken my boy Stefan – but I don’tknow. I can’t even say that it wasa wolf that took him. He mighthave wandered far and fallen inthe stream and drowned, or in aravine, or just been lost in thewoods. I saw the tracks of thewolves but I didn’t see my son’sfootprints. I have thought about itevery day of my life; and still Idon’t know.’ Brother Peter nodded andpursed his lips. He looked at Luca.‘Do you want me to write down
  • 460. her statement and have her puther mark on it?’ Luca shook his head. ‘Later wecan, if we think there is need,’ hesaid. He bowed to the woman.‘Thank you for your hospitality,goodwife. What name shall I callyou?’ She rubbed her face with thecorner of her apron. ‘I am SaraFairley,’ she said. ‘Wife of RalphFairley. We have a good name inthe village, anyone can tell youwho I am.’ ‘Would you bear witness againstthe werewolf?’ She gave him a faint smile witha world of sorrow behind it. ‘Idon’t like to talk of it,’ she saidsimply. ‘I try not to think of it. Itried to do what the priest told meand bury my sorrow with the littleshirt, and thank God for my
  • 461. second boy.’ Brother Peter hesitated. ‘We willcertainly put it on trial and if it isproven to be a werewolf it willdie.’ She nodded. ‘That won’t bringback my boy,’ she said quietly.‘But I should be glad to know thatmy son and all the children aresafe in the pasture.’ They rose up and left her.Brother Peter gave his arm toIsolde as they walked down thestony path, Luca helped Ishraq. ‘Why does Brother Peter notbelieve her?’ Ishraq asked himwhile she had her hand on his armand was close enough to speaksoftly. ‘Why is he always sosuspicious?’ ‘This is not his first inquiry; hehas travelled before and seenmuch. Your lady, Isolde, was very
  • 462. tender to her.’ ‘She has a tender heart,’ Ishraqsaid. ‘Children, women, beggars,her purse is always open and herheart is always going out to them.The castle kitchen gave away twodozen dinners a day to the poor.She has always been this way.’ ‘And has she ever loved anyonein particular?’ Luca asked casually.There was a big rock in thepathway and he stepped over itand turned to help Ishraq. She laughed. ‘Nothing to dowith you,’ she said abruptly. Whenshe saw him flush she said, ‘Ah,Inquirer! Do you really have toknow everything?’ ‘I was just interested . . .’ ‘No-one. She was supposed tomarry a fat indulgent sinful manand she would never haveconsidered him. She would never
  • 463. have stooped to him. She took hervows of celibacy with ease. Thatwas not the problem for her. Sheloves her lands, and her people.No man has taken her fancy.’ Shepaused as if to tease him. ‘So far,’she conceded. Luca looked away. ‘Such abeautiful young woman is boundto . . .’ ‘Quite,’ Ishraq said. ‘But tell meabout Brother Peter. Is he alwaysso miserable?’ ‘He was suspicious of themother here,’ Luca explained. ‘Hethinks she may have killed thechild herself, and tried to blame iton a wolf attack. I don’t think somyself; but of course, in theseout-of-the-way villages, suchthings happen.’ Decisively, she shook her head.‘Not her. That is a woman with a
  • 464. horror of wolves,’ she said. ‘It’s noaccident she was not down in thevillage, though everyone else wasthere to see them bring it in.’ ‘How do you know that?’ Lucasaid. Ishraq looked at him as if hewere blind. ‘Did you not see thegarden?’ Luca had a vague memory of awell-tilled garden, filled withflowers and herbs. There hadbeen a bed of vegetables andherbs near to the door to thekitchen, and flowers and lavenderhad billowed over the path. Therewere some autumn pumpkinsgrowing fatly in one bed, andplump grapes on the vine whichtwisted around the door. It was atypical cottage garden: plantedpartly for medicine and partly forcolour. ‘Of course I saw it, but I
  • 465. don’t remember anything special.’ She smiled. ‘She was growing adozen different species of aconite,in half a dozen colours, and herboy had a fresh spray of theflower in his hat. She was growingit at every window and everydoorway – I’ve never seen such acollection, and in every colour thatcan bloom, from pink to white topurple.’ ‘And so?’ Luca asked. ‘Do you not know your herbs?’Ishraq asked teasingly. ‘A greatinquirer like yourself?’ ‘Not like you do. What isaconite?’ ‘The common name for aconiteis wolfsbane,’ she said. ‘Peoplehave been using it against wolvesand werewolves for hundreds ofyears. Dried and made into apowder it can poison a wolf. Fed
  • 466. to a werewolf it can turn him intoa human again. In a lethal dose itcan kill a werewolf outright, it alldepends on the distillation of theherb and the amount that the wolfcan be forced to eat. For sure, nowolf will touch it; no wolf will gonear it. They won’t let their coatsso much as brush against it. Nowolf could get into that house –she has built a fortress of aconite.’ ‘You think it proves that herstory is true and that she fears thewolf? That she planted it to guardherself against the wolf, in case itcame back for her?’ Ishraq nodded at the boy whowas skipping ahead of them like alittle lamb himself, leading theway back to the village, a sprig offresh aconite tucked into hishatband. ‘I should think she isguarding him.’
  • 467. A small crowd had gatheredaround the gate to the stable yardwhen Luca, Brother Peter and thegirls arrived back at the inn. ‘What’s this?’ Luca asked, andpushed his way to the front of thecrowd. Freize had the gate half-open and was admitting oneperson at a time on payment of ahalf-groat, chinking the coins inhis hand. ‘What are you doing?’ Lucaasked tersely. ‘Letting people see the beast,’Freize replied. ‘Since there wassuch an interest, I thought wemight allow it. I thought it was forthe public good. I thought I mightdemonstrate the majesty of Godby showing the people this poor
  • 468. sinner.’ ‘And what made you think itright to charge for it?’ ‘Brother Peter is always soanxious about the expenses,’Freize explained agreeably,nodding at the clerk. ‘I thought itwould be good if the beast madea contribution to the costs of histrial.’ ‘This is ridiculous,’ Luca said.‘Close the gate. People can’t comein and stare at it. This is supposedto be an inquiry, not a travellingshow.’ ‘People are bound to want tosee it,’ Isolde observed. ‘If theythink it has been threatening theirflocks and themselves for years.They are bound to want to know ithas been captured.’ ‘Well, let them see it, but youcan’t charge for it,’ Luca said
  • 469. irritably. ‘You didn’t even catch it,why should you set yourself up asits keeper?’ ‘Because I loosed its bonds andfed it,’ Freize said reasonably. ‘It is free?’ Luca asked, andIsolde echoed nervously: ‘Haveyou freed it?’ ‘I cut the ropes and got myselfout of the pit at speed. Then itrolled about and crawled out ofthe nets,’ Freize said. ‘It had adrink, had a bite to eat, now it’slying down again, resting. Notmuch of a show really, but theyare simple people and not muchhappens here. And I charge halfprice for children and idiots.’ ‘There is only one idiot here,’Luca said severely. ‘And he is notfrom the village. Let me in, I shallsee it.’ He went through the gateand the others followed him.
  • 470. Freize quietly took coins off theremaining villagers and openedthe gate wide for them. ‘I’d wagerit’s no wolf,’ he said quietly toLuca. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘When it got itself out of the netI could see. It’s curled up now inthe shadowy end, so it’s harder tomake out, but it’s no beast that Ihave ever seen before. It has longclaws and a mane, but it goes upand down from its back legs to allfours, not like a wolf at all.’ ‘What kind of beast is it?’ Lucaasked him. ‘I’m not sure,’ Freize conceded.‘But it is not much like a wolf.’ Luca nodded and went towardsthe bear pit. There was a set ofrough wooden steps and a ring oftrestles laid on staging, so thatspectators to the bear baiting
  • 471. could stand all around the outsideof the pit and see over thewooden walls. Luca climbed the ladder andmoved along the trestle so thatBrother Peter and the two girlsand the little shepherd boy couldget up too. The beast was huddled againstthe furthest wall, its legs tuckedunder its body. It had a thick longmane, and a hide tanned darkbrown from all weathers,discoloured by mud and scars. Onits throat were two new ropeburns; now and then it licked ableeding paw. Two dark eyeslooked out through the mattedmane and, as Luca watched, thebeast bared its teeth in a snarl. ‘We should tie it down and cutinto the skin,’ Brother Petersuggested. ‘If it is a werewolf we
  • 472. will cut the skin and beneath itthere will be fur. That will beevidence.’ ‘You should kill it with a silverarrow,’ one of the villagersremarked. ‘At once, before themoon gets any bigger. It will bestronger then, they wax with themoon. Better kill it now while wehave it and it is not in its fullpower.’ ‘When is the moon full?’ Lucaasked. ‘Tomorrow night,’ Ishraqanswered. The little boy besideher took the aconite from his hatand threw it towards the curledanimal. It flinched away. ‘There!’ someone said from thecrowd. ‘See that? It fearswolfsbane. It’s a werewolf. Weshould kill it right now. Weshouldn’t delay. We should kill it
  • 473. while it is weak.’ Someone picked up a stone andthrew it. It caught the beast on itsback and it flinched and snarledand shrank away as if it wouldburrow its way through the highwall of the bear pit. One of the men turned to Luca.‘Your honour, we don’t haveenough silver to make an arrow.Would you have some silver inyour possession that we might buyfrom you, and have forged into anarrowhead? We’d be very grateful.Otherwise we’ll have to send toPescara, to the moneylenderthere, and it will take days.’ Luca glanced at Brother Peter.‘We have some silver,’ he saidcautiously. ‘Sacred property of theChurch.’ ‘We can sell it to you,’ Lucaruled. ‘But we’ll wait for the full
  • 474. moon before we kill the beast. Iwant to see the transformationwith my own eyes. When I see itbecome a full wolf then we willknow that it is the beast youreport, and we can kill it when it isin its wolf form.’ The man nodded. ‘We’ll makethe silver arrow now, so as to beready.’ He went into the inn withBrother Peter, discussing a fairprice for the silver, and Lucaturned to Isolde and took abreath. He knew himself to benervous as a boy. ‘I was going to ask you, I meantto mention it earlier, there is onlyone dining room here . . . in fact,will you dine with us tonight?’ heasked. She looked a little surprised. ‘Ihad thought Ishraq and I wouldeat in our room.’
  • 475. ‘You could both eat with us atthe large table in the dining room,’Luca said. ‘It’s closer to thekitchen, the food would be hotter,fresher from the oven. There couldbe no objection.’ She glanced away, her colourrising. ‘I would like to . . .’ ‘Please do,’ Luca said. ‘I wouldlike your advice on . . .’ He trailedoff, unable to think of anything. She saw at once his hesitation.‘My advice on what?’ she asked,her eyes dancing with laughter.‘You have decided what to do withthe werewolf, you will soon haveorders as to your next mission.What can you possibly want withmy opinion?’ He grinned ruefully. ‘I don’tknow. I have nothing to say. I justwanted your company. We aretravelling together, you and I,
  • 476. Brother Peter and Ishraq, Freizewho has sworn himself to be yourman – I just thought you mightdine with us.’ She smiled at his frankness. ‘Ishall be glad to spend this eveningwith you,’ she said honestly. Shewas conscious of wanting to touchhim, to put her hand on hisshoulder, or to step closer to him.She did not think it was desirethat she felt; it was more like ayearning just to be close to him,to have his hand upon her waist,to have his dark head near tohers, to see his hazel eyes smile. She knew that she was beingfoolish, that to be close to him, anovice for the priesthood, was asin, that she herself was alreadyin breach of the vows she hadmade when she had joined theabbey; and she stepped back.
  • 477. ‘Ishraq and I will come sweet-smelling to dinner,’ she remarkedat random. ‘She has got theinnkeeper to bring the bathtub toour room. They think we aremadly reckless to bathe when it’snot even Good Friday – that’swhen they all take their annualbath – but we have insisted that itwon’t make us ill.’ ‘I will expect you at dinner,then,’ he said. ‘As clean as if itwas Easter.’ He jumped downfrom the platform and put out hishands to help her. She let him lifther down and as he put her on herfeet he held her for a momentlonger than was needed to makesure she was steady. He felt herlean slightly towards him, he couldnot have been mistaken; but thenshe stepped away and he wassure that he had been mistaken.
  • 478. He could not read her movements,he could not imagine what shewas thinking, and he was boundby vows of celibacy to take nostep towards her. But at any rate,she had said that she would cometo dinner and she had said thatshe would like to dine with him.That at least he was sure of, asshe and Ishraq went into the darkdoorway of the inn. Luca glanced up, self-consciously, but Freize had notobserved the little exchange. Hewas intent on the werewolf as itturned around and around, asdogs do before they lie down.When it settled and did not move,Freize announced to the littleaudience, ‘There now, it’s gone tosleep. Show’s over. You can comeback tomorrow.’ ‘And tomorrow we’ll see it for
  • 479. free,’ someone claimed. ‘It’s ourwerewolf, we caught it, there’s noreason that you should charge usto see it.’ ‘Ay, but I feed him,’ Freize said.‘And my lord pays for his keep.And he will examine the creatureand execute it with our silverarrow. So that makes him ours.’ They grumbled about the costof seeing the beast as Freizeshooed them out of the yard andclosed the doors on them. Lucawent into the inn and Freize to theback door of the kitchen. ‘D’you have anything sweet?’ heasked the cook, a plump dark-haired woman who had alreadyexperienced Freize’s most blatantflattery. ‘Or at any rate, d’youhave anything half as sweet asyour smile?’ he amended. ‘Get away with you,’ she said.
  • 480. ‘What are you wanting?’ ‘A slice of fresh bread with aspoonful of jam would be verywelcome,’ Freize said. ‘Or somesugared plums, perhaps?’ ‘The plums are for the lady’sdinner,’ she said firmly. ‘But I cangive you a slice of bread.’ ‘Or two,’ Freize suggested. She shook her head at him inmock disapproval but then cut twoslices off a thick rye loaf, slappedon two spoonfuls of jam and stuckthem face to face together.‘There, and don’t be coming backfor more. I’m cooking dinner nowand I can’t be feeding you at thekitchen door at the same time.I’ve never had so many gentry inthe house at one time before, andone of them appointed by theHoly Father! I have enough to dowithout you at the door night and
  • 481. day.’ ‘You are a princess,’ Freizeassured her. ‘A princess indisguise. I shouldn’t be surprised ifsomeone didn’t come by one dayand snatch you up to be a princessin a castle.’ She laughed delightedly andpushed him out of the kitchen,slamming the door after him, andFreize climbed up on the viewingplatform again and looked downinto the bear pit where thewerewolf had stretched out andwas lying still. ‘Here.’ Freize waved the slice ofbread and jam. ‘Here – do you likebread and jam? I do.’ The beast raised its head andlooked warily at Freize. It lifted itslips in a quiet snarl. Freize took abite from the two slices, and thenbroke off a small piece and tossed
  • 482. it towards the animal. The beast flinched back fromthe bread as it fell, but thencaught the scent of it and leanedforwards. ‘Go on,’ Freizewhispered encouragingly. ‘Eat up.Give it a try. You might like it.’ The beast sniffed cautiously atthe bread and then slunkforwards, first its big front paws,one at a time, and then its wholebody, towards the food. It sniffed,and then licked it, and thengobbled it down in one quickhungry movement. Then it sat likea sphinx and looked at Freize. ‘Nice,’ Freize said encouragingly.‘Like some more?’ The animal watched him asFreize took a small bite, ate itwith relish, and then once againbroke off a morsel and threw ittowards the beast. This time it did
  • 483. not flinch but followed the arc ofthe throw keenly, and went atonce to where the bread landed,in the middle of the arena, comingcloser all the time to Freize,leaning over the wall. It gobbled up the bread withouthesitation and then sat on itshaunches, looking at Freize,clearly waiting for more. ‘That’s good,’ Freize said, usingthe same gentle voice. ‘Now comea little bit closer.’ He dropped thelast piece of bread very near to hisown position, but the werewolf didnot dare come so close. It yearnedtowards the sweet-smelling breadand jam, but it shrank back fromFreize, though he stood very stilland whispered encouraging words. ‘Very well,’ he said softly. ‘You’llcome closer for your dinner later, Idon’t doubt,’ and he stepped down
  • 484. from the platform and foundIshraq had been watching himfrom the doorway of the inn. ‘Why are you feeding him likethat?’ she asked. Freize shrugged. ‘Wanted to seehim properly,’ he said. ‘I suppose Ijust thought I’d see if he likedbread and jam.’ ‘Everyone else hates him,’ sheobserved. ‘They are planning hisexecution in two nights’ time. Yetyou feed him bread and jam.’ ‘Poor beast,’ he said. ‘I doubt hewanted to be a werewolf. It musthave just come over him. And nowhe’s to die for it. It doesn’t seemfair.’ He was rewarded with a quicksmile. ‘It isn’t fair,’ she said. ‘Andyou are right – perhaps it is justhis nature. He may be just adifferent sort of beast from any
  • 485. other that we have seen. Like achangeling: one who does notbelong where he happens to be.’ ‘And we don’t live in a worldthat likes difference,’ Freizeobserved. ‘Now that’s true,’ said the girlwho had been different from allthe others from birth with her darkskin and her dark slanting eyes. ‘Now then,’ said Freize, slidinghis arm around Ishraq’s waist.‘You’re a kind-hearted girl. Whatabout a kiss?’ She stood quite still, neitheryielding to his gentle pressure norpulling away. Her stillness wasmore off-putting than if she hadjumped and squealed. She stoodlike a statue and Freize stood stillbeside her, making no progressand rather feeling that he wantedto take his arm away, but that he
  • 486. could not now do so. ‘You had better let me go atonce,’ she said in a very quieteven voice. ‘Freize, I am warningyou fairly enough. Let me go; or itwill be the worse for you.’ He attempted a confident laugh.It didn’t come out very confident.‘What would you do?’ he asked.‘Beat me? I’d take having my earsboxed from a lass like you withpleasure. I will make you an offer:box my ears and then kiss mebetter!’ ‘I will throw you to the ground,’she said with a quietdetermination. ‘And it will hurt,and you will feel like a fool.’ He tightened his grip at once,rising to the challenge. ‘Ah, prettymaid, you should never threatenwhat you can’t do,’ he chuckled,and put his other hand under her
  • 487. chin to turn up her face for a kiss. It all happened so fast that hedid not know how it had beendone. One moment he had hisarm around her waist and wasbending to kiss her, the next shehad used that arm to spin himaround, grabbed him, and he wastipped flat on his back on the hardcobbles of the muddy yard, hishead ringing from the fall, and shewas at the open doorway of theinn. ‘Actually, I never threaten whatI can’t do,’ she said, hardly out ofbreath. ‘And you had betterremember never to touch mewithout my consent.’ Freize sat up, got to his feet,brushed down his coat and hisbreeches, shook his dizzy head.When he looked up again, shewas gone.
  • 488. The kitchen lad toiled up the stairscarrying buckets of hot water, tobe met at the door of the women’sroom by either Ishraq or Isoldewho took the buckets and pouredthem into the bath that they hadset before the fire in theirbedroom. It was a big woodentub, half of a wine barrel, andIshraq had lined it with a sheetand poured in some scented oil.They closed and bolted the dooron the boy, undressed, and gotinto the steaming water. Gently,Isolde sponged Ishraq’s bruisedshoulder and forehead, and thenturned her around and tipped backher head to wash her black hair. The firelight glowed on theirwet gleaming skin and the girls
  • 489. talked quietly together, revellingin the steaming hot water, andthe flickering warmth of the fire.Isolde combed Ishraq’s thick darkhair with oils, and then pinned iton top of her head. ‘Will you washmine?’ she asked, and turned sothat Ishraq could soap her backand shoulders and wash hertangled golden hair. ‘I feel as if all the dirt of theroad is in my skin,’ she said, asshe took a handful of salt from thedish beside the bath, and rubbedit with oil in her hands and thenspread it along her arms. ‘You certainly have a smallforest in your hair,’ Ishraq said,pulling out little twigs and leaves. ‘Oh, take it out!’ Isoldeexclaimed. ‘Comb it through, Iwant it completely clean. I wasgoing to wear my hair down
  • 490. tonight.’ ‘Curled on your shoulders?’Ishraq asked, and pulled a ringlet. ‘I suppose I can wear my hair asI please,’ Isolde said, flicking herhead. ‘I suppose it is nobody’sbusiness but mine, how I wear myhair.’ ‘Oh, for sure,’ Ishraq agreedwith her. ‘And surely the inquirerhas no interest in whether yourhair is curled and clean andspread over your shoulders orpinned up under your veil.’ ‘He is sworn to the Church, asam I,’ Isolde said. ‘Your oaths were forced at thetime, and are as nothing now; andfor all I know his oaths are thesame,’ Ishraq said roundly. Isolde turned and looked at her,soapsuds running down her nakedback. ‘He is sworn to the Church,’
  • 491. she repeated hesitantly. ‘He was put into the Churchwhen he was a child, before heknew what was being promised.But now he is a man, and he looksat you as if he would be a freeman.’ Isolde’s colour rose from thelevel of the water, slowly to herdamp forehead. ‘He looks at me?’ ‘You know he does.’ ‘He looks at me . . .’ ‘With desire.’ ‘You can’t say that,’ she said, ininstant denial. ‘I do say it . . .’ Ishraq insisted. ‘Well, don’t . . .’In the yard outside, Luca hadgone out to take one last look at
  • 492. the werewolf before dinner.Standing on the platform with hisback to the inn, he suddenlyrealised he could see the girls intheir bathtub as a reflection in thewindow opposite. At once he knewhe should look away, more thanthat, he should go immediatelyinto the inn without glancingupwards again. He knew that theimage of the two beautiful girls,naked together in their bath,would burn into his mind like abrand, and that he would never beable to forget the sight of them:Ishraq twisting one of Isolde’sblonde ringlets in her brownfingers, stroking a salve into eachcurl and pinning it up then gentlysponging soap onto her pearlyback. Luca froze, quite unable tolook away, knowing he wascommitting an unforgivable
  • 493. trespass in spying on them,knowing that he was committing aterrible insult to them and worse,a venal sin, and, finally, as hejumped down from the platformand blundered into the inn,knowing that he had fallen farbeyond liking, respect and interestfor Isolde – he was burning upwith desire for her.Dinner was unbearably awkward.The girls came downstairs in highspirits, their hair in damp plaits,clean linen and clean clothesmaking them feel festive, as if fora party. They were met by twosubdued men. Brother Peterdisapproved of the four of themdining together at all, and Luca
  • 494. could think of nothing but thestolen glimpse of the two girls inthe firelight, with their hair downlike mermaids. He choked out a greeting toIsolde and bowed in silence toIshraq, then rounded on Freize atthe door, who was fetching aleand pouring wine. ‘Glasses! Theladies should have glasses.’ ‘They’re on the table as any foolcan see,’ Freize replied stolidly. Hedid not look at Ishraq but herubbed his shoulder as if feeling apainful bruise. Ishraq smiled at him without amoment’s embarrassment. ‘Haveyou hurt yourself, Freize?’ sheasked sweetly. The look he shot at her wouldhave filled any other girl withremorse. ‘I was kicked by adonkey,’ he said. ‘Stubborn and
  • 495. stupid is the donkey, and it doesnot know what is best for it.’ ‘Better leave it alone then,’ shesuggested. ‘I shall do so,’ Freize saidheavily. ‘Nobody tells Freizeanything a second time. Especiallyif it comes with violence.’ ‘You were warned,’ she saidflatly. ‘I thought it might shy,’ he said.‘This stupid donkey. I thought itmight resist at first. I wouldn’thave been surprised by a coy littlenip by way of rebuke andencouragement, all at once. WhatI didn’t expect was for it to kickout like a damn mule.’ ‘Well, you know now,’ repliedIshraq calmly. He bowed, the very picture ofoffended dignity. ‘I know now,’ heagreed.
  • 496. ‘What is this all about?’ Isoldesuddenly asked. ‘You would have to ask thelady,’ Freize said, with muchemphasis on the noun. Isolde raised an eyebrow atIshraq, who simply slid her eyesaway, indicating silence, and nomore was said between the twogirls. ‘Are we to wait all night fordinner?’ Luca demanded, and thensuddenly thought he had spokentoo loudly and, in any case,sounded like a spoiled brat. ‘Imean: is it ready, Freize?’ ‘Bringing it in at once, my lord,’Freize said with injured dignity,and went to the top of the stairsand ordered that dinner beserved, by the simple technique ofhollering for the cook. The two girls did most of the
  • 497. talking at dinner, speaking of theshepherd boy, his mother, and theprettiness of their little farm.Brother Peter said little, silent inhis disapproval, and Luca tried tomake casual and nonchalantremarks but kept tripping himselfup as he thought of the dark goldof Isolde’s wet hair, and the warmgleam of her wet skin. ‘Forgive me,’ he suddenly said.‘I am quite distracted thisevening.’ ‘Has something happened?’Isolde asked. Brother Peter fixedhim with a long slow stare. ‘No. I had a dream, that was all,and it left my mind filled withpictures, you know how it does?When you can’t stop thinkingabout something.’ ‘What was the dream?’ Ishraqasked.
  • 498. At once Luca flushed red. ‘I canhardly remember it. I can only seethe pictures.’ ‘Of what?’ ‘I can’t remember them, either,’Luca stammered. He glanced atIsolde. ‘You will think me a fool.’ She smiled politely and shookher head. ‘Sugared plums,’ Freizeremarked, bringing them suddenlyto the table. ‘Great deal of fussabout these in the kitchen. Andevery child in the village waitingat the back door for any that youleave.’ ‘I’m afraid we cause a greatdeal of trouble,’ Isolde remarked. ‘Normally a party with ladieswould go on to a bigger town,’Brother Peter pointed out. ‘That’swhy you should be with a largergroup of travellers who have
  • 499. ladies with them already.’ ‘As soon as we meet up withsuch a group we’ll join them,’Isolde promised. ‘I know we aretrespassing on your kindness bytravelling with you.’ ‘And how would you manage formoney?’ Brother Peter askedunkindly. ‘Actually, I have some jewels tosell,’ Isolde said. ‘And they have the horses,’Freize volunteered from the door.‘Four good horses to sell wheneverthey need them.’ ‘They hardly own them,’ BrotherPeter objected. ‘Well, I’m sure you didn’t stealthem from the brigands, and thelittle lord would never steal, and Idon’t touch stolen horseflesh, sothey must be the property of theladies and theirs to sell,’ Freize
  • 500. said stoutly. Both girls laughed. ‘That’s kindof you,’ Isolde said. ‘But perhapswe should share them with you.’ ‘Brother Peter can’t take stolengoods,’ Freize said. ‘And he can’ttake the fee for showing thewerewolf, either, as it’s against hisconscience.’ ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake!’ Peterexclaimed impatiently and Lucalooked up, as if hearing theconversation for the first time. ‘Freize, you can keep the moneyfor showing the werewolf but don’tcharge the people any more. Itwill only cause bad feeling in thevillage and we have to have theirconsent and good will for theinquiry. And of course the ladiesshould have the horses.’ ‘Then we are well provided for,’Isolde said with a smile to Brother
  • 501. Peter and a warm glance to Luca.‘And I thank you all.’ ‘Thank you, Freize,’ Ishraq saidquietly. ‘For the horses came toyour whistle and followed you.’ Freize rubbed his shoulder as ifhe was in severe pain, and turnedhis head away from her, and saidnothing.They all went to bed early. Theinn had only a few candles andthe girls took one to lightthemselves to bed. When theyhad banked in the fire in theirbedroom and blown out the light,Ishraq swung open the shutterand looked down into the bear pitbelow the window. In the warm glow of the yellow
  • 502. near-full moon she could make outthe shape of Freize, sitting on thebear-pit wall, his legs danglinginside the arena, a fistful of chopbones from dinner in his hand. ‘Come on,’ she heard himwhisper. ‘You know you like chopbones, you must like them evenmore than bread and jam. I saveda little of the fat for you, it’s stillwarm and crispy. Come on now.’ Like a shadow, the beastwormed its way towards him andhalted in the centre of the arena,sitting on its back legs like a dog,facing him, its chest pale in themoonlight, its mane falling backfrom its face. It waited, its eyeson Freize, watching the chops inhis hand, but not daring to comeany closer. Freize dropped one just belowhis feet, then tossed one a little
  • 503. further away, and then one furtherthan that, and sat rock-still as thebeast squirmed to the farthestbone. Ishraq could hear it lick, andthen the crunching of the bone asit ate. It paused, licked its lips andthen looked longingly at the nextbone on the earthen floor of thebear pit. Unable to resist the scent, itcame a little closer, and took upthe second bone. ‘There you go,’Freize said reassuringly. ‘No harmdone and you get your dinner.Now, what about this last one?’ The last one was almost underhis dangling bare feet. ‘Come on,’Freize said, urging the beast totrust him. ‘Come on now, whatd’you say? What d’you say?’ The beast crept the last fewfeet to the last bone, gobbled itdown and retreated, but only a
  • 504. little way. It looked at Freize, andthe man, unafraid, looked back atthe beast. ‘What d’you say?’ Freizeasked again. ‘D’you like a lambchop? What d’you say, littlebeast?’ ‘Good,’ the beast said, in thelight piping voice of a child. ‘Good.’Ishraq expected Freize to flinghimself off the arena wall andcome running into the inn with theamazing news that the beast hadspoken a word, but to her surprisehe did not move at all. She herselfclapped her hand over her mouthto stifle her gasp. Freize wasfrozen on the bear-pit wall. Heneither moved nor spoke, and fora moment she wondered if he had
  • 505. not heard, or if she had misheardor deceived herself in some way.Still Freize sat there like a statueof a man, and the beast sat therelike a statue of a beast, watchinghim; and there was a long silencein the moonlight. ‘Good, eh?’ Freize said, his voiceas quiet and level as before. ‘Well,you’re a good beast. Moretomorrow. Maybe some bread andcheese for breakfast. We’ll seewhat I can get you. Goodnight,beast – or what shall I call you?What name do you go by, littlebeast?’ He waited, but the beast did notreply. ‘You can call me Freize,’ theman said gently to the animal.‘And perhaps I can be your friend.’ Freize swung his legs over tothe safe side of the wall andjumped down, and the beast
  • 506. stood four-legged, listening for amoment, then went to the shelterof the furthest wall, turned aroundthree times like a dog, and curledup for sleep. Ishraq looked up at the moon.Tomorrow it would be full and thevillagers thought that the beastwould wax to its power. Whatmight the creature do then?A delegation from the villagearrived the next morning sayingrespectfully but firmly that theydid not want the inquiry to delayjustice against the werewolf. Theydid not see the point of theinquirer speaking to people, andwriting things down. Instead, allthe village wanted to come to the
  • 507. inn at moonrise, moonrise tonight,to see the changes in thewerewolf, and to kill it. Luca met them in the yard,Isolde and Ishraq with him, whileFreize, unseen in the stable, wasbrushing down the horses listeningintently. Brother Peter wasupstairs completing the report. Three men came from thevillage: the shepherd boy’s father,Ralph Fairley; the villageheadman, William Miller; and hisbrother. They were very sure theywanted to see the wolf in its wolfform, kill it, and make an end tothe inquiry. The blacksmith washammering away in the villageforge making the silver arroweven as they spoke, they said. ‘Also, we are preparing itsgrave,’ William Miller told them.He was a round red-faced man of
  • 508. about forty, as pompous and self-important as any man of greatconsequence in a small village. ‘Iam reliably informed that awerewolf has to be buried withcertain precautions so that it doesnot rise again. So to make certainsure that the beast will lie downwhen it is dead and not stir fromits grave, I have given orders tothe men to dig a pit at thecrossroads outside the village.We’ll bury it with a stake throughits heart. We’ll pack the gravewith wolfsbane. One of thewomen of the village, a goodwoman, has been growingwolfsbane for years.’ He noddedat Luca as if to reassure him. ‘Thesilver arrow and the stake throughits heart. The grave of wolfsbane.That’s the way to do it.’ ‘I thought that was the undead?’
  • 509. Luca said irritably. ‘I thought itwas the undead who were buriedat crossroads?’ ‘No point not taking care,’ MrMiller said, glowingly confident inhis own judgement. ‘No point notdoing it right, now that we havefinally caught it and we can kill itat our leisure. I thought we wouldkill it at midnight, with our silverarrow. I thought we would make abit of an event of it. I myself willbe here. I thought I might handover the silver arrow to thearcher, and perhaps I might makea short speech.’ ‘This isn’t a bear baiting,’ Lucasaid. ‘It’s a proper inquiry, and Iam commissioned by His Holinessas an inquirer. I can’t have thewhole village here, the deathsentence agreed before I haveprepared my report, and rogues
  • 510. selling seats for a penny.’ ‘There was only one roguedoing that,’ Mr Miller pointed outwith dignity. The noise of Freizegrooming the horse and whistlingthrough his teeth suddenly loudlyincreased. ‘But the whole villagehas to see the beast and see itsdeath. Perhaps you don’tunderstand, coming from Rome asyou do. But we’ve lived in fear ofit for too long. We’re a smallcommunity, we want to know thatwe are safe now. We need to seethat the werewolf is dead and thatwe can sleep in peace again.’ ‘I beg your pardon, sir, but it’sthought that my first son wastaken by the beast. I’d like to seean end to it. I’d like to be able totell my wife that the beast isdead,’ Ralph Fairley, the shepherdboy’s father, volunteered to Luca.
  • 511. ‘If Sara knew that the beast wasdead then she might feel that ourson Tomas can take the sheep outto pasture without fear. She mightsleep through the night again.Seven years she has wakenedwith nightmares. I want her to beat peace. If the werewolf wasdead, she might forgive herself.’ ‘You can come at midnight,’Luca decided. ‘If it is going tochange into a wolf then it will doso then. And if we see a change,then I shall be the judge ofwhether it has become a wolf.Only I shall make that judgement,and only I will rule on itsexecution.’ ‘Should I advise?’ Mr Millerasked hopefully. ‘As a man ofexperience, of position in thecommunity? Should I consult withyou? Help you come to your
  • 512. decision?’ ‘No.’ Luca crushed him. ‘This isnot going to be a matter of thevillage turning against a suspectand killing him out of their fearand rage. This is going to be aweighing of the evidence andjustice. I am the inquirer. I shalldecide.’ ‘But who is going to fire thearrow?’ Mr Miller asked. ‘We havean old bow which Mrs Louisafound in her loft, and we haverestrung it, but there’s nobody inthe village who is trained to use alongbow. When we’re called up towar we go as infantry wi