I was conceived under the Giant, in the old way, with a man my mother never knew.
She wanted a child of her own, she said, after having brought so many other babies into the world.
She was a midwife, my mother, and a hedge-witch. People came to her for hurts to the body and the soul. She made wine from dandelions, and love spells from daisy-chains, and could break a bewitchment by corking up your piss and fingernail cuttings in a bottle with pins. She raised me alone, in our tiny thatched cottage by the village pond, and taught me everything she knew.
Sometimes the other children taunted me for being a bastard. I would only laugh and make the sign of the Devil’s horns at them, and they would run away, screaming with excitement. I had no need of them as playmates. I had Ambrose. He was a bastard-child too. We grew up together, running wild through the meadows and the forests. His black hair was matted as a bird’s nest, his clothes little more than rags, but he sang and laughed all the day long.
Like me, he had no father.
Unlike me, he had no mother either.
She poisoned herself the day he was born. They buried her at the crossroads with a stake through her heart.
Now, seventeen years later, they hung Ambrose above her grave, in an iron cage they had bolted around his body. He could not crouch or sit or lie down. He could not shake his fist at the ravens that came pecking at his eyes. He could not protect himself from the stones flung at him by the villagers. He could only wait to die.
‘I have to rescue him,’ I told my mother, pacing up and down, my skirts swishing apart the sweet-scented rushes.
She looked up from her sewing. ‘You’ll be in sore trouble if they catch you.’
‘I know. But I cannot bear it!’
‘Where shall you hide him? There’ll be a hue and cry for him.’
‘In the ruins of the abbey. There are many old nooks and crannies there, and everyone thinks it is haunted.’
My mother nodded. ‘Be careful, my sweet girl. And take Thunderdell with you.’
At the sound of his name, the huge dog lying by the door raised his head and looked at me, tail thumping.
‘Of course,’ I said impatiently. I never went anywhere without my dog.
I packed my basket carefully. Some food and ale. A leather flask of feverfew tea. Some tools to help me crack open the iron cage. Flint and tinder. Ointment made of comfrey, yarrow, rosemary, and my namesake, sweet cicely.
‘Come on, boy,’ I said.
Thunderdell rose ponderously to his feet. He was so big, his head was level with my waist. I caught up my staff, then eased open the door. The sun had set long ago, but light lingered in the sky. I went quietly through the garden to the edge of the pond. A stream flowed into it from the old saint’s well, hidden on the other side of the wall. I crept under the willow tree and dipped my handkerchief into the water. Then I slapped it hard on a stone by the water’s edge, chanting:
‘I knock this rag upon this stone,
to raise a storm in the devil’s name.
It shall not rest until I please again.’
The willow fronds stirred, and the rushes bent. A cat’s paw of wind disturbed the dark water.
With the great dog at my side, I went out on to the hills, climbing towards the giant whose vast form glimmered white in the twilight.
My mother had told me that once, a long time ago, the giant had come roaring down the valley, laying about him with his club. The men of the village had chased him up the hill, and killed him with their bows and arrows. Down he had crashed, dead. To celebrate, the men of the village had carved deeply about his shape, so that he was emblazoned upon the hillside as a warning to all those who dared threaten Cerne Abbas. For thousands of years, the giant’s shape had been kept sharp and clear.
Then the monks had come and called the great white figure an abomination. They had ordered the ditches to be filled in with stones. Brambles and wildflowers and grasses grew over him. Five hundred years passed. But he was not forgotten. Every child that grew up in Cerne Abbas went searching, at one stage or another, for the giant’s enormous balls. Women who wished for a baby led their lovers there by the hand, and lay on the soft turf under the stars, and felt the giant’s life force surging under their buttocks. As my mother had done, seventeen years earlier, when she had wanted me.
Then, a few years ago, a young monk called William Christchurch had dug the giant out again. His tools no more than a pick and shovel and, at times, his bare hands. He had carried bucket-loads of chalk upon his shoulder, struggling up and down that steep slope. He had given the giant a most impressive bodkin.
Brother William hated the abbot, Thomas Corton. He said Father Thomas was a lecher and a heretic, who besmirched the abbey and all who lived nearby. Brother William had had been banished for his pains. He had come back, and dug out the giant, and preached against the monks in the village green, and been run out of town by the church wardens. So he had written to Sir Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister and chief enemy of the monasteries. Cromwell took heed of his complaints. The abbey of Cerne Abbas had been dissolved, the great buildings knocked down or burned, the few remaining monks paid off.
Father Thomas had been given a pension of a hundred pounds a year for going quietly. The prior ten pounds. The lowliest student-monk a measly forty shillings.
Brother William received nothing.
Cromwell did not like traitors, it was said.
The wind was blustering strongly now. My skirts billowed. Thunderdell’s ears were blown inside out. I stood on the top of Giant Hill and held out my handkerchief. It fluttered so hard I almost lost it to the wind. I tied one knot in it, whispering ‘rain’. At once it began to spit. I tied a second knot. ‘Thunder,’ I muttered. My dog growled deep in his throat. The sky answered. I tied a third knot. ‘Lightning,’ I cried.
The sky was split apart with the white forked tongue of the devil’s fire.
I ran down the hill, in a deluge of rain. I felt that strange rush of terror and excitement I always felt when summoning a storm. Below me, Cerne Abbas lay veiled in white mists. I could scarcely see where to put my feet. To the west, the sky glared crimson through the thunderclouds.
I went the long way around, through the muddy fields. Thunderdell whined. He could not understand why we were not at home, lying by the fire.
I heard the gibbet before I saw it. Chains clanking in the wind. An eerie rhythmic creaking. I went slowly, listening with all my might, one hand on the dog’s head to keep him quiet. The road ran down like a green tunnel through high banks overgrown with thorns and brambles. Above, the sycamore trees shook their hand-shaped leaves.
Then I saw the iron cage, illuminated by a flash of lighting. I saw Ambrose, each limb encased. I saw the guard huddled nearby. I pulled out my handkerchief and, with stiff fumbling fingers, unfastened one knot.
The wind howled. The rain cascaded.
I unfastened another knot.
Thunder roared. A tree branch fell.
I unfastened the third knot.
Lightning struck again and again, on every horizon. White. Dazzling. Stinking of hell.
The guard ran for home.
I struggled forward, mud sucking at my boots. Thunderdell was a picture of misery, ears and tail drooping, heavy jowls swaying. I came to the gibbet. It swung back and forth in the wind. It had been hung from a tree branch. I had to climb up the bank, tearing my clothes and skin on the briars. I caught hold of the iron bars. The chains jangled.
I tried to peer within. All I could see was a body slumped against the bars of the cage. ‘Ambrose?’ I whispered.
Please don’t let him be dead, please don’t let him be dead …
A hoarse groan. The cropped head lifted. ‘Cicely?’’
I sagged with relief, and almost slipped. The iron cage swung as I grasped it to save myself. ‘Yes. It’s me. I’m here. I’ll get you out.’
It was a task almost beyond my strength. I struck again and again with my hammer. Each blow clanged like the toll of a funeral bell. Ambrose tried to help me, but he could scarcely lift a finger within the narrow confines of the cage. At last I managed to knock out enough bolts to lift the top part of the cage over his head. Then he struggled to climb out. Blinded by rain and darkness, he could not support his weight on his enfeebled arms. He tumbled down into the lane. Struck his head. I scrambled down and fell to my knees beside him, lifting his head into my lap. He stirred, moaning. Thunderdell licked him awake.
‘Sweet Cicely,’ Ambrose said in a dazed voice. ‘Is it really you?’
‘Yes,’ I whispered.
He lifted one hand and slid it behind my neck, drawing my face down so he could kiss me on the mouth. I drew away, startled and blushing.
‘I can happily die now,’ he said.
His lips had been scorching-hot against mine. He was delirious, I realised. No wonder after so many months locked in the gaol at Dorchester. I uncorked the leather bottle of feverfew tea and held it to his lips. He gulped it down greedily.
‘So thirsty,’ he whispered.
My heart smote me. Two days he had been in that cage, without food or water. But I had not dared come earlier. ‘I know,’ I whispered. ‘But you can drink more later. Now we must go.’
Through the storm we crept, buffeted by the rain-laden wind. He was barefoot, and barely able to limp along. I gave him my staff to lean on, and supported him with my arm about his back.
Somehow I got him to the little chapel built over the old saint’s well. It was hidden down in a hollow beside the abbey graveyard, much overgrown with brambles and wild rose. I could hear the rushing of the water under the stones.
I could not help feeling afraid as we crept down the long avenue of linden trees.
It was down here that the murder had been done.
‘Brother Jerome,’ I whispered, stepping in through the doorway. ‘Are you here?’
A dark shape moved in the shadows. My heart jerked. But it was the old monk, shuffling forward in his black robe, the hood drawn up over his head against the dank chill that struck up from the paving.
Thunderdell growled, his massive hackles rising. I put one hand on his head to calm him.
‘I am here, my child,’ the old monk whispered. ‘Do you have the laddie?’
‘Yes.’ I helped Ambrose over to the wall, where I had laid a mattress stuffed with fresh lady’s bedstraw and woodruff. He slumped down upon it gratefully. I then crouched beside him, fumbling with shaking hands to light the lantern I had set beside it earlier in the day. At last a flame caught, and the tiny chapel was filled with golden light.
Brother Jerome watched me, his hands tucked within the sleeves of his rough black habit. He was an old man with scanty white hair, naturally tonsured, the bare top of his head age-spotted and black-scabbed. His face was all bone and hollows, the skin of his brow deeply graven with lines. He had lived in the abbey since he was a boy and knew no other life. The abbey’s closure had been a calamity for him. The few pounds he had been paid was not enough to support him, and so he took refuge in the abbey ruins, eating what he could scavenge. I had discovered him after seeing him drink the milk we put out each night for the Good People. I had told no-one but Mam. If the constable knew, he’d have driven the poor old man away, for the abbey ruins belonged to a foreign fellow now, the king’s favourite lutenist.
‘Do not fear,’ he told Ambrose. ‘I did not see your death in the pool past Easter morn.’
‘I’m glad,’ Ambrose said with a crooked smile. ‘I confess, I thought the end of my days had come.’
‘I saw the faces of others. The traitor, the infidel, the martyr, the whore, the sodomite, they shall all die as the lecher died.’
The poor old thing was half-cracked, I thought, and no wonder.
I went and knelt by the well, filling my leather bucket with water, and then my drinking flask. The water of the well had healing magic, my mother had taught me. For a moment I knelt there, looking down into the glimmering water. Nearby lay the old wishing-stone, carved with the shape of a wheel. I laid my hand on it. ‘Let me keep him safe,’ I whispered. Then, with my body growing warm, I whispered, ‘let us be together.’
Ambrose’s ragged clothes were caked with filth. I drew them off and threw them in a corner. His naked body was slender and well-muscled, though showing the effects of too little food in recent weeks. I rubbed him vigorously with a soapy cloth, and he curled away from me, covering himself with his hands. ‘Cicely, you should not,’ he whispered.
‘I must get you clean,’ I said.
‘I’ll do it. Don’t watch.’
So I turned and faced the wall, my face hot, listening as he feebly washed himself with water from the bucket.
The old monk had sat down on an old stool, and was clinking prayers with his wooden rosary. Thunderdell had flopped down on the ground, his head resting on his paws. I heard Ambrose sigh, and then the sound of him pulling on the old woollen robe I had stolen from a washing-line earlier that evening.
I turned and kneeled beside him, drawing out the ointment and a cloth.
He reached out and cupped my face with one hand. ‘Cicely,’ he whispered. ‘You should not have come. They will find me, and punish you.’
‘No, they won’t,’ I said stoutly. ‘I’ll hide you so well they’ll never find you.’
He sighed, and moved his head restlessly. I could see the sheen of sweat on his skin, despite the chill of the old damp stones. I gave him the bread and cheese, but he could not eat. He was shivering. I gave him the half-empty flask of feverfew tea, and he managed to gulp a few mouthfuls while I tended his cuts and bruises.
‘Cicely … they think I killed him. They think I killed my father. But I didn’t. I swear I didn’t.’
‘I know that,’ I said scornfully. ‘Why would you bother?’
‘They’ll find me,’ he whispered. ‘There’s no escape. Wherever I run, they’ll hunt me down.’
I sat back on my heels. ‘We need to clear your name. We need to prove you are innocent.’
He laughed, high and wild. ‘You think I did not try?’
I caught hold of Ambrose’s restless hand. ‘We shall have to find the true murderer. Then you’ll be safe.’
‘I will never be safe,’ he whispered. ‘They want me dead.’
When I left the chapel, it was an hour short of midnight.
I felt so weary I could barely drag my feet along, but my work for the night was not yet done. I had tied Ambrose’s stinking clothes to my staff, and now I trudged along, the bundle over my shoulder, heading away from the village. Thunderdell loped along at my side, whining every now and again in complaint. The rain still fell in drifting sheets, and I was wet through and shivering with cold before I reached the river. I flung the clothes into the water, letting them be washed away downstream. I hoped the constable would think that Ambrose had run to the river, rather than to the ruined abbey.
I then hurried home. My mother was awake. The fire danced merrily, the kettle was boiling, and the wooden tub stood ready, rosemary twigs floating on the surface of the steaming water. She looked up as I came in and raised her eyebrows, and I smiled at her.
Quickly she helped me strip off and climb into the bath, and then she went to rinse out my mud-streaked clothes in the wash-tub outside the back door. Then she came and washed my hair for me. When I was clean and warm again, I climbed out, dressed in a clean chemise and combed my wet hair. My mother made me some hot lemon balm tea, and I drank it gratefully as she wrung out my dress and hung it to dry.
We were both safe in bed before the church bells finished ringing out the midnight hour.
I did not sleep well that night. The rain lashed against the thatch, for I had not reknotted my handkerchief. I wanted the storm to wash away our footsteps. I was most anxious about the hue-and-cry that would inevitably arise once it was realised Ambrose had escaped from the gibbet.
Had it been clever to hide him in the very place in which his father had been murdered? Or stupid?
I could not tell.
It was, however, the only abbey building left with a roof. All the others had been torn down by the king’s men. And I had known the storm would be wild. I had wanted Ambrose to sleep warm and dry, out of the rain.
One thing comforted me. Ambrose had shown no sign of a guilty conscience when he had seen the shadowy pool where his father had been found lying three months earlier, on Easter morning, his head stoved in with a boulder.
Surely he could not be the only suspect?
Surely many people had wanted Thomas Corton, the former abbot, dead.
The whole village knew that the abbot was Ambrose’s father.
Certainly, Ambrose looked like him, with his thick dark hair, bright blue eyes, and long straight nose. Yet Father Thomas had never acknowledged Ambrose, even though he had been generous with his other by-blows. Perhaps Ambrose’s mother had angered him by resisting. Perhaps the abbot had been shocked by the scandal she caused, killing herself on the day her baby was born.
Yet the abbot had made sure that Ambrose was given work in the abbey. Turning the spits in the kitchen, feeding the pigs, hoeing the herb garden. Perhaps he had cared, a little.
Ambrose had never been either dutiful or grateful. He would wait until the monk in charge had turned his back, then slip away. I’d hear him whistle like a robin and I’d untie my apron and run out the door to meet him. We’d come home in the dusk, flushed and grubby, with our sacks full of burdock leaves and sloes and sweet chestnuts, and anything else we could find that would please my mother. The three of us would sit by the fire, eating our pottage, telling stories, singing rounds. Ambrose would linger as long as he could. Eventually, though, he had to return to the abbey. Next time I saw him there would be new bruises on his face but Ambrose would be as light-hearted and merry as ever.
I could not believe that he had killed his father.
Restless, I rose at last in the dawn. My mother smiled at me, and set me to grinding herbs, knowing I needed some kind of exertion to exhaust the nervous energy thrumming through my body. I was hard at work when I heard shouting. I lifted my head, my heart speeding up. So Ambrose’s escape had been discovered.
I wondered where Brother Jerome had taken him. Last night the monk had seemed half-crazy. Perhaps I should not have trusted him. I should have hidden Ambrose myself.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ my mother said. ‘Now he is free, Ambrose will take great care not to be caught again. No-one knows the hidden places of the abbey as well as he does.’
‘But he was sick … feverish …’
My mother frowned. ‘Did he eat anything?’
I shook my head.
‘Was he delirious?’
I remembered how he had kissed me, then said that now he could die happy. Blood rushed up my face. ‘I … I think so.’
‘You do not know? Was he hot? Confused?’
‘A rash of red spots?’
I remembered his smooth naked body, turning away from me. My whole body was afire, as if it was me who had the fever. ‘No.’
‘That’s good. We must hope it is not gaol fever.’
‘I should go to him.’ I paced back and forth, twisting my hands together. ‘Brother Jerome is not fit to care for him. I should be there, looking after him.’
‘Peace, my child.’ My mother swung the kettle over the fire. ‘Come, sit down, busy yourself with some work.’ She put fresh lemon balm leaves in a pot, and shook in a measure of dried chamomile flowers. A calming tea for over-strained nerves.
She lifted down three wooden cups from their hooks.
‘For the constable?’ I asked, my voice not quite steady.
‘He will be here soon.’
I nodded in understanding. I knew that many people found it uncanny, the way my mother always seemed to know what would happen, but, really, it was not so hard.
The sound of shouting came closer. I began to feel sick.
Then Thunderdell leapt up, growling deep in his throat. My mother poured the boiling water into the kettle. ‘Here he is, perfect timing. Show him in, Cicely.’
I went to the door and opened it, just as the constable raised his hand to rap smartly upon it. Caught by surprise, he almost struck me in the face. Flushing red, he dropped his hand.
‘Good morning, Mr Ward,’ I said, bobbing a curtsey and standing back. He had to duck his head low to enter. Thunderdell began to bark, and I put my hand on his head.
‘Tie up your dog,’ the constable said sharply.
I opened my mouth to protest, but my mother said, ‘Of course. Come, sit down. May I offer you a mug of lemon balm tea? It’s uncommonly chilly today.’
‘No, thank you,’ he answered curtly, and did not sit down at the stool she offered. This was a bad sign, I thought. I glanced anxiously at my mother, but she smiled at me and bade me tie up Thunderdell.
I did as I was told, then sat on a stool beside the dog, my arm about his neck, drawing courage from his great bulk.
‘How can I help you, Mr Ward?’ my mother asked, pouring a cup of tea and passing it to me. ‘Is your back acting up again? Would you like some more of my calendula ointment? Or is it baby Grace who needs me? She must be teething by now.’
‘No, no,’ he said. ‘At least, yes, she is teething, and my poor Marjory is beside herself trying to get her to sleep. But that’s not why I’m here.’
‘No? Then why are you here?’ she asked, pouring herself a cup. The sweet scent of the steam swirled about the room. I knew it would be working on the constable without him tasting a sip.
‘Young Ambrose has been freed from the gibbet,’ Mr Ward answered. I was conscious of his eyes steady on my face.
I bent to stoke up the fire, hoping the sudden blaze of warmth from the furze would explain the colour in my cheeks. I did not know how to act. Too much disinterest and he would instantly be suspicious. Everyone in the village knew what great friends Ambrose and I had been, before he had run away to become a travelling minstrel. But too warm an interest would surely arouse his suspicion too.
‘Freed? From the gibbet?’ my mother asked, pausing with her cup half-raised to her mouth. ‘But who would do such a thing?’
‘That is my question also,’ he answered, still watching me.
‘Well, for my part, I have to say that I’m pleased. It’s a cruel punishment, caging up a young man like that till he slowly starves to death.’ My mother spoke with real emotion in her voice. The constable looked at her with narrowed eyes.
I was relieved to be free of his gaze.
‘You felt pity for the lad?’
‘But of course. Didn’t we all?’
‘He was found guilty of murdering his father. The judges could have been much harsher.’ As he spoke, the constable’s eyes roamed the room.
There was little for him to see.
A small dark room, lit by the sullenly glowing fire in the centre of the room. An earthen floor softened with fresh-cut rushes. Rafters hung with dried herbs and smoked meats and skeins of wool. A rickety table where my mother worked. Pantry shelves lined with small sacks and glass bottles and ceramic jars. The constable climbed a few rungs of the ladder and looked up at our sleeping shelf. Our beds were neat, the eiderdowns smoothed over the mattresses, our clothes hanging from hooks.
There was nowhere for anyone to hide.
He stepped down into the room, frowning in thought.
‘But why would Ambrose kill his father?’ I asked, unable to keep quiet a moment longer.
‘Revenge,’ the constable said, after a moment. ‘For his mother’s death, and for failing to support him. When we found Ambrose, he was begging for a crust.’
‘It was Lent,’ I said hotly. ‘A hard time for any street entertainer.’
He stared at me. ‘So how do you know this? You saw him? You spoke to him?’
‘It’s common sense,’ I said.
A moment later, I regretted my hasty words. His heavy eyebrows beetled.
‘We did not see Ambrose,’ my mother said quickly. ‘We only heard that he had returned when you arrested him.’
‘He was on his way to see us,’ I added. Somehow it was important that everyone understood that.
The constable looked from one face to another.
‘Mr Ward, you know that I do not lie,’ my mother said. ‘I am willing to swear on the Bible that I have not seen Ambrose since the day he ran away from the abbey. That’s more than a year ago.’
He nodded, and stroked his beard. Suddenly he turned to me. ‘And what of you, Cicely? Have you seen him?’
Slowly I raised my eyes to his. ‘Yes, sir. I have.’
He nodded his head sharply, a gleam of satisfaction in his eyes. ‘Is that so? Where did you see him?’
‘I went to the gaol in Dorchester, as soon as I heard he had been arrested,’ I admitted. ‘The gaolers would not let me see him, but they let me give him some food. Or at least, they let me give it to them. I do not know if he ever got it. Then I went back, to see the assizes. I was there when the judges convicted him.’
‘I did not see you,’ he said slowly.
‘I sat up the back, and then … when I heard what they meant to do … I was so upset I ran out.’ I met his sharp gaze. ‘I could not bear it,’ I said simply.
He was about to ask another question, when I interrupted him. ‘Please, sir, what made you think it was Ambrose who murdered the abbot? Surely there were other people who wanted him dead? What about the monk that accused him? William Christchurch?’
‘Brother William is … was a holy brother,’ the constable said reprovingly. ‘And no-one saw him on the day. While that young man is a rogue and a vagabond, and was seen skulking about the old well on the morning of the murder.’
‘He’s not a vagabond,’ I protested hotly. ‘He’s a travelling minstrel.’
‘Without a license,’ the constable retorted. ‘That makes him a sturdy beggar and a vagabond in the eyes of the law.’
‘And he wasn’t skulking about. He was on his way to see me. He said so in his trial. It was just bad luck that he should be passing by …’
‘… at the very moment that his father was murdered only a few hundred feet away?’ the constable said dryly. ‘Very bad luck indeed. No, I’m sorry, my dear. I’m afraid Ambrose is the culprit.’
I was ready to argue further, but my mother put down her cup with a snap. ‘Mr Ward, I don’t know what more we can tell you. Neither Cicely or myself have left the house today. We both will swear to the truth of that on the Bible if you should so choose.’
‘Is that true?’ he asked me, eyeing me closely.
‘Yes, it’s true,’ I said indignantly, the hot blood still coursing through my body. ‘We’ve been here together all morning.’ I waved at the bread kneaded and set in pans to rise, and the bowls of ground herbs. He stared at me and I met his gaze defiantly. ‘Check my boots if you doubt me,’ I said. ‘They’ll be quite dry.’
He went across to where my battered boots were turned upside down on rods to dry, and squatted to examine them thoughtfully. After half the night roasting by the fire, they were indeed bone-dry.
He rose to his feet, frowning and looking displeased. ‘I was sure it must’ve been you,’ he said, as if to himself.
‘Just as you were sure that Ambrose was a murderer,’ I said scornfully.
His face reddened. ‘We will catch him,’ he said, ‘and when we do, we’ll hang him from the nearest tree.’
I had to put out a hand and grip the table to steady myself.
Just then, a deep bloodcurdling howl rose in the distance, and then another. Thunderdell leapt to his feet, barking furiously.
‘What … what is that?’ I stammered.
‘It’s Sir Philip’s hunting dogs. They can track anything, I’ve been told, in any weather. That baying means they have caught young Ambrose’s scent. They’ll lead us straight to him.’ Smiling, he caught up his hat and cloak and headed towards the door. He turned on the threshold. ‘When we have him, we’ll question him. See who broke him out of the cage. And if we find it was you who let him loose, Mistress Brightell, or you, Cicely … well, then you shall hang with him.’
As soon as he was gone, I changed into my boots. ‘What are you going to do?’ my mother asked.
‘I have to find the true murderer,’ I said. ‘I am going to find that crazy monk that denounced the abbey, and I am going to ask him to tell me the truth!’
My mother sighed. ‘I suppose you want me to cast a spell of truthfulness on him?’
‘Can you do it?’
‘It’d be easier if I had a lock of his hair or some fingernail clippings, or even dirt from his footsteps. But I will do my best.’
My mother went to the pantry and carefully cut a small square of parchment from her precious hoard. She knelt by the fire and carefully drew out a burning furze twig, blowing on it till the flame was snuffed out. Then, with the blackened stick, she swiftly drew a man’s face on the parchment. A thin austere face within a dark hood. Eyes that seemed to burn with fervour. We had all seen William Christchurch many times in the years when he had lived at the abbey, and then during his long battle to denounce the abbot. Still I marvelled at my mother’s skill in capturing his likeness with just a few strokes. She held the parchment above the flames. It caught fire.
‘Flames so red, let the truth be said,’ she chanted. ‘Flames so bright, let what’s hidden come to light.’
The parchment flared up, then crumbled to dust. My mother threw a handful of salt into the flames, crying, ‘Let it be so!’
She sank back on to her heels. ‘He will speak truth to you,’ she said wearily. ‘If he is the murderer, he will confess to you.’
I trudged wearily into Dorchester, Thunderdell panting along at my side. It had been a long, damp walk, though we had been lucky enough to hitch a ride with a farmer and his wife part of the way. They had been most curious about my dog, and wondered whether I brought him to town for the bull-baiting later that day.
‘No,’ I said shortly. I did not tell them that Ambrose and I had rescued Thunderdell from such a hideous fate when he was little more than a puppy.
It was market-day, and the streets bustled with people. I saw a man leading a bear on a chain, and another man with his ear nailed to the pillory. Women laid out their homespun cloth and their cheeses in the marketplace, and I laid out my mother’s herbal potions alongside them. All the talk was of the king and his new wife. He had set her aside, after only six months of being wed. He planned to marry another, it was whispered. A young girl, not yet seventeen years old. The whore Anne Boleyn’s own cousin.
I could not believe what I heard. Already the king had had four wives. One divorced. One beheaded. One dead in childbirth. And now the fourth, to be put aside like an unwanted toy.
Thomas Cromwell, the king’s thug, was blamed for arranging the marriage. He had been arrested and thrown in the Tower. Surely the king will pardon him, some said. No, he’ll lose his head, for sure, others declared. And so he should, the heretic, a few whispered, looking about them.
I had come to the marketplace hoping to gather news of William Christchurch, whom I had heard had come to Dorchester to work as a scribe. But it was hard to redirect the conversation the way I wanted, with everyone all of a–flutter about the news from London. At last someone told me I could find him in the churchyard with the other scribes, willing to write me a letter for a ha’penny. I recognised him at once. The bony face and thin lips, just as my mother had drawn him. I went and sat down before him.
‘What can I write for you, miss?’ he asked, not even looking up at me. ‘A love letter to your sweetheart, I suppose.’ His voice was full of contempt.
At once my temper rose. ‘No. Write me a confession.’
He looked up at me in surprise. ‘A confession?’
‘Yes. Write the truth. You are the one who killed Father Thomas, not Ambrose. You are the one who should be hung in a gibbet, not him!’
William laid down his quill. ‘I did not kill Thomas Corton. I wish that I had. Many a time I’ve imagined it. He was the Devil Incarnate. But I dared not.’
There was such a ring of truth in his voice I was dumbfounded.
‘I know who you are,’ he said, after a moment. ‘You are the cunning woman’s daughter. And the boy’s sweetheart. I’m sorry. I know they charged him with the abbot’s murder. Indeed, it must be awful to know that you sprang from such filthy loins. I do not blame him for killing his father.’
‘Ambrose did not kill the abbot,’ I said in a shaking voice.
‘Neither did I,’ the scribe answered. ‘I swear to you on the Holy Bible, I had nothing to do with that foul lecher’s death. Did he not die early in the morning on Easter Sunday? I was here at the church all night, celebrating the Easter Vigil. A hundred people would have seen me.’
I dropped my head into my hands. ‘Then who? Who?’
‘I was not the only one who hated him,’ William said after a long moment. ‘He did great harm. But … one thing that puzzled me when I heard he had been murdered. Why wait so long to kill him? The abbey was dissolved more than a year ago. Thomas Corton had been lording it over the village all that time. Why kill him on Easter Friday? And why at the saint’s well? If you can answer those questions, then you will know your killer.’
The rain was still pelting down on Cerne Abbas when I returned that evening. The river was rising, and the road was flooded. I had to wade through water up to my knees. Children were out, racing little boats made of leaves and twigs down the flow. Men were building walls from sandbags to keep the water from rushing through their cottages.
‘It must be time to knot your handkerchief,’ my mother said as I stood on the doorstep, dripping water everywhere.
I looked at her with painful anxiety. She smiled and shook her head. ‘It seems Sir Philip’s hunting dogs cannot track in weather like this. All the scent has been washed away.’
I heaved a great sigh, and took the sodden handkerchief out of my pocket, tying it in three thick knots. As I sat down on my stool and bent to unlace my boots, I could hear the rain begin to ease.
Mam brought me a steaming cup of lemon balm tea. ‘So William Christchurch was not the murderer?’
I shook my head.
‘I did not think so. What shall you do now?’
‘I don’t know. But I’m not giving up.’
‘The way forward will become clear to you,’ Mam said in her serene way, and went back to stirring the pottage.
That night I put out a dish of milk for the Good People as usual, and then doused the lantern and banked up the fire with turf as if getting ready for bed. But then I sat on a stool by the back door, wrapped in my cloak, waiting.
It was close on midnight when Thunderdell lifted his head and growled. I heard the furtive sound of footsteps, and then the scrape as the bowl was lifted. I eased open the door.
‘Brother Jerome,’ I whispered. ‘Is that you?’
He gave a startled cry, and I calmed him with one hand on his arm. It was shockingly thin under the weight of his woollen sleeve. ‘I have some food here,’ I whispered, showing him my basket. ‘Take me to Ambrose and I will give it to you.’
The abbey was an eerie place at night, the broken walls and great arched windows silhouetted against the sky. I had been within its cloisters many times, for my mother had tended the sick and elderly that had sought shelter within its walls. In its final years, there had been little more than a dozen monks at the abbey, and so there had been no need for an infirmarian.
I did not know the rest of the monastery well, though, for my mother’s business had been confined to the kitchen, the herb garden and the sickroom. Brother Jerome, however, had lived there most of his life. He led me swiftly and without hesitation through the ruins. Concealed beneath a broken wall was a narrow crevice.
‘We need to creep through there?’ I stared at it in disfavour.
‘Thunderdell will never fit.’ I turned to my dog and bade him lie down and stay. ‘On guard, boy,’ I ordered. Unhappily the great dog lay down, his eyes fixed on my face. ‘Good boy. Stay.’
Brother Jerome squeezed through the crack. I followed him, scraping one shoulder on the rock. It was a tight fit, even though I was only thin. I found myself standing on the top step of a steep flight of stairs that led down into darkness. I fumbled to light my lantern, holding it within the curve of my cloak to keep away the cold draughts that blew from below. I followed him down the steps, then through one vaulted cellar after another. Once, I imagined, the monks had kept their barrels of wine down here. Now it all was bare and empty and cobwebbed, the ground damp and slippery underfoot.
A tunnel led us to a series of smaller cellars, without the grand vaulting. I thought we might be under what had once been the kitchen. Here there were broken barrels, tumbled boxes, a few empty sacks. Brother Jerome rolled away an old barrel and revealed a tiny wooden door. He unlocked it, and dragged it open. Its rusty hinges squealed.
I lifted high my lantern. Hidden beyond was another dank cellar, its walls green with slime. It was scantily furnished with a rickety old bed frame, piled high with wild grasses and lady’s bedstraw and old sacks. That must be where the old monk slept.
Relics from the abbey had been arranged in a makeshift altar against one wall. Broken gargoyles, shards of stained glass, a tarnished abbot’s crook, fragments of old bone, part of a stone cross. Otherwise there was only a stool, a broken jug, and a battered pewter plate engraved with the abbey’s arms, a cross engrailed between four lilies.
Ambrose lay on his mattress. His clothes and blankets were all tangled, his black curls lank with sweat. He moaned and twitched and occasionally cried out. I ran and fell to my knees beside him.
‘He’s burning up!’ Hurriedly I drew out a flask of feverfew tea, and tried to help him drink. Ambrose shook his head wildly, though, and knocked the flask out of my hand. He was muttering incoherently.
I looked up at Brother Jerome. ‘It’s so cold and damp in here. Was there nowhere else to take him?’
The old monk had crouched on the floor beside me, rummaging through the basket, cramming food into his mouth. He looked up at my words. ‘Not if you don’t want him to be found. This cellar was always kept hidden. It’s where the abbot used to keep his concubine. No-one knows about this place but me and her and him, and he’s dead, and she won’t tell a soul, in fear of being whipped through the town in her nightgown again.’
I looked around at the puddled floor, the green-slimed wall. ‘The abbot kept someone here? Locked in?’
‘Joan Postell, her name was. An orphan girl, thrown on the parish’s charity. He had her brought here when she was just a lass, and kept her for his pleasure.’
I hugged myself close. It was bitterly cold down here, even in midsummer. I could imagine how freezing it must have been in winter.
‘How … how long was she kept here?’
‘Must have been close on seven years,’ Brother Jerome answered.
I stared at him in horror. ‘But … did no-one help her … rescue her …’
‘Brother William tried, once he knew about her. But the abbot had him thrown out for his pains.’
‘But … what about you? Could you not have freed her?’
‘She used to beg me to let her go, on her knees, but I didn’t dare. The abbot did not like his will to be crossed. And where could I have gone, if he had thrown me out? Look what happened to Brother William.’
I could not believe what I was hearing. I sank down to my knees beside Ambrose, my arms wrapped tight around me. I had thought the accusations brought against the abbot by William Christchurch must have been exaggerated. But it seemed they had been all too true.
Ambrose cried out. He was shivering. I laid my hand against his damp forehead and bit my lip. ‘He cannot stay here. He’ll die!’
‘He will not die. I did not see his face. Many others will die, but not him.’
I pressed my fingers to my temples. I was so tired, nothing seemed to make sense. ‘I need to go home. I’ll make Ambrose some more medicine. Keep him as warm as you can, and give him the feverfew tea to drink every few hours. Try and get him to eat some of that pottage. Don’t you eat it all!’
The monk did not respond, his hands folded into his sleeves, his head bent.
‘Come and fetch me if you need me,’ I said.
I trudged back through the cellars, my thoughts in turmoil. I could not help thinking of the young woman kept here against her will for so many years. What kind of monster had the abbot been? And how could Brother Jerome not have set her free? He must have been very frightened of Thomas Corton, I thought.
As I climbed up the steps, I could hear Thunderdell whining above me. As soon as I had crept out the little hole, he flung himself upon me, his tail wagging. I hugged him, and petted him, and told him what a good boy he was. The warmth of his body was welcome after the dankness of the underground cell.
We slipped through the graveyard and down to the chapel. What had the abbot been doing here, on Easter morning? I wondered. Why had he not been at the church, enduring the long Easter vigil like the rest of us?
My mother believed in old gods and goddesses that had long been forgotten, but she felt no unease in going to church each week. ‘The gods can be praised anywhere there is beauty,’ she told me. ‘Whether we are walking in the woods, or sitting by the silver well, or watching the beauty of the sunset, or singing as we work, it doesn’t matter. As long as you are filled with joy and reverence, you are thanking the gods.’
‘Then why must we go to church? Can’t we just walk in the woods or sing in the garden?’
‘It does us no harm to join our friends each week, and sit in silence a while, thinking and praying.’
‘If only we could sit in silence! But that old priest does nothing but talk the whole time.’
She laughed. ‘Oh, I know. But it does you no harm to learn to listen and hold your peace. You are always quick to argue and put forward your own view, Cicely. I love that you are so sharp-witted and bold. But it is not always wise. Spending a few hours listening in peace and patience will help you bridle your tongue.’
‘Then why can’t the priest bridle his? He is the one trying to force us to believe what he believes.’
‘He has not lived enough lives to be wise,’ my mother said serenely. ‘He will learn in time.’
So we went to church, and sat quietly, hands folded, and said Amen when we should. But I preferred to praise the gods and goddesses in the woods and the meadows, and by singing and laughing and working with a good will.
How had the abbot preferred to worship? I wondered. Had it been hard for him to lose his great church with its glorious rose windows? Did he find it hard to sit still and listen to the parish priest drone on, when once he had been called Father and had led the prayers himself?
Was that why he did not come to church that day? Had he preferred to come to this tiny chapel and worship on his own?
I had paused in the shadow of the chapel for some time, thinking these thoughts, enjoying the sweet scent of the linden blossoms on the breeze. The moon had come out, and silvered the softly running water. Thunderdell sat quietly beside me, leaning his weight against my leg. Then he lifted his head and growled softly. I put my hand on his head, and he quietened, though his body quivered with tension. I gazed out into the night anxiously.
A dark hulking shape stood half-concealed in the shadows under the trees. If it had not been for the bright moonlight, I would not have seen it.
Someone was watching our house.
Silently I chanted, Blind from sight, try as they might. Blind from sight, try as they might.
Slowly a cloud drifted across the moon. Imagining myself and my dog wrapped in a protective cloak of darkness, I crept as quietly as I could through the little back gate and into our garden. By the time the moon shone once more, I was safe inside with Thunderdell, the door barred behind us.
But it was a long time before I slept.
‘Mam, did you know a girl was kept captive in the abbey? Locked in a cellar?’ I asked the next morning, perched on a stool in my nightgown, eating my porridge.
My mother’s hands stilled. ‘I know that such an accusation was made. And I know the king’s commissioners whipped a woman from the premises when they first came down to investigate, close on two years ago now. It was said she was the abbot’s whore. I tended her afterwards, and wondered about her then. She had been badly mistreated. I asked her who had done such things to her, but she shook her head and would not speak.’
‘Do you know what happened to her?’
My mother nodded. ‘Yes, indeed. I delivered a baby for her just a few weeks ago. She is living just a mile or so north of here, in Up Cerne. Married to the village baker, I believe. She was still strangely silent, I thought. But she seemed very glad of her new daughter.’
I ate a few mouthfuls thoughtfully.
‘You think she may be the one who killed the abbot?’ my mother asked, laying down her knife.
‘If she had been kept locked up in a cell for years, beaten and raped and whipped through the town as a whore, do you not think she might have cause?’ I cried.
My mother came and sat down on her stool, her hands folded in her lap, regarding me thoughtfully. I looked back at her, chin tilted defiantly.
‘The wheel turns,’ my mother said slowly. ‘We are born, we die, we are reborn. To kill another human is to break this natural turning. The murdered soul may not be able to find its way forward. It may wander this earth, its pathway lost to it.’
‘You mean … it may become a ghost?’ I thought of the dark shape I had seen lurking in the shadows last night. Goosebumps shivered my skin.
My mother nodded. ‘Death out of time can tie the murdered soul to that of the murderer, or to the place where it happened. If you have eyes to see it.’
‘Did you see …’ I did not know how to express my thoughts.
My mother nodded. ‘There was a great shadow in her, Cicely. I thought it was fear, or perhaps grief. But it may have been guilt. It may have been a haunt. But if she was the one … well, she must have been very close to giving birth. And she is not strong. Her bones are weak and crooked, unlike anything I have seen before. I do not think she would have had the strength to bash in a man’s head with a stone.’
‘I must see her for myself,’ I said at last. ‘I must be sure.’
My mother nodded and rose to her feet. ‘I will give you a gift to take to her. A tincture of blessed thistle and goat’s rue, to enrich her milk. And, Cicely …’
‘Be careful. Wounded beasts will lash out if they feel threatened.’
It was a pleasant and easy walk to Up Cerne along the country lanes. Thunderdell should have been trotting along, sniffing at the verges, lifting his leg at every tree. Instead he turned often, growling. I turned too, but saw no-one. But the back of my neck prickled, and I quickened my pace.
Up Cerne was a tiny hamlet built about a tiny church in a green hollow surrounded by rolling chalk downs. I only had to follow my nose to find the baker’s home. He frowned at the sight of me, but when I explained who I was he reluctantly showed me into the inner room. It was dark and stuffy in there. All the windows were shuttered, and no lamp or candle had been lit.
‘Joan. A visitor for you.’ His voice was all tenderness.
‘Who is it?’ a frightened voice lisped.
‘The cunning-woman’s daughter. She has brought you a gift.’ He shot me a suspicious look, and went back to his ovens.
It took my eyes some time to adjust from the brightness of the day.
Joan sat in a rocking chair, wrapped in a heavy shawl. Her beauty was strange, almost elfin. She was delicate as a sickly child, with wrists like twigs. Her hair was pale golden but very thin. Her eyes were pale blue, but set a little too far apart under a bulbous forehead and fringed by eyelashes so pale they were invisible. Her baby was only tiny, tightly swaddled, and yet it seemed Joan hardly had the strength to hold her.
I held out the tincture for her, but she only stared at me with wide, anxious eyes. ‘Why are you here, witch-girl?’ she asked.
She had only a few teeth left in her mouth, like an ancient crone. Yet she was scarcely older than me. As she raised one hand to hide her mouth, I saw her fingers were all bent and crooked. As if they had been broken and not set properly.
I did not know how to question her. In the end, I said simply, ‘you were at the abbey?’
She looked stricken. Her eyes fell, and she clutched the child closer.
‘Yes?’ I asked.
She nodded, not meeting my eyes.
‘You must have been glad to get away? Did … did you hate him? The abbot?’
‘Yes. I hated him with all my heart. I was glad when he died. I wanted to dance on his grave, but Owen said I must not.’
‘Owen is your husband?’
She nodded again.
I did not think Joan had the strength to raise a rock and bring it down on to the abbot’s head. Unless he had been on his knees praying. Unless she had been maddened with hate.
Her husband, though, he was a burly young man. He could have killed the abbot.
‘Did you sit the Easter Vigil?’ I asked. ‘You and your husband?’
She raised her eyes to mine for the first time since we had met. ‘Yes,’ she said, in that hissing lisp that was both strangely childish and horribly old. ‘For God is good and forgives me my sins. That is why Jesus died on the cross. So I might be clean again.’
‘You went to the church here? In Up Cerne?’
She gazed at me, puzzled. ‘Yes. Of course. I cannot walk far, you see.’ And she laid the sleeping child down in the cradle beside her, then lifted her skirts so I could see her legs.
Bent, twisted, bowed like a Gothic arch.
I saw only a glimpse before Joan lowered her skirts. ‘So, you see, I could not have killed the abbot. Much as I wanted to. And I know you think Owen might have done it, for love of me. And he would’ve, I know. But we did not. We were here, in the church, till dawn.’
I felt sick and shaken as I walked home. What had caused her limbs to be so misshapen? Lack of food, lack of sunlight, lack of room to run and dance and scramble? Or had she been deliberately broken?
I was frightened. The abbot seemed to stride next to me, his shadow encroaching on mine. I thought about what my mother had said. How a murdered soul could tie itself to a person or a place. The abbot did not seem like a man who would surrender his essence to the air. He would hold on grimly. Was he holding on to me?
Thunderdell was growling again. I looked over my shoulder. A dark shape. Watching from the woods. My steps quickened till I was almost running. The figure began to hurry too. A slant of sunshine fell upon him.
It was Mr Ward. The constable.
My first reaction was limb-weakening relief. Then I felt a flash of rage. I left the road and began to wander through fields and forests, up hills and down dales, leading the constable a merry dance. As I walked, Thunderdell at my heels, I thought.
I knew Ambrose was innocent. Knew it as my mother knew where to dig for water. But William Christchurch had not been the murderer, and neither had Joan Baker or her husband. So who was it? Who had killed the abbot?
I picked and gathered the hedgerow harvest as I walked, filling my basket with sweet-scented herbs, blackberries and early hazelnuts. When my basket was brimming, I hid in the bracken till Mr Ward had hurried out of sight, and then I went to visit Ambrose. He was no better; indeed, he seemed worse. His eyes were sunken, and he was thinner than ever, as if the fever was burning away his flesh.
Tears welled up in my eyes. I could not bear to see Ambrose so ill. I had a flask of cool spring water with me. I lifted him and brought the flask to his lips. He gulped thirstily, and I saw that his lips were parched. He drank it all, then I laid him down again. He smiled at me, and croaked my name. I tucked him in tenderly. ‘You must stay warm,’ I whispered. ‘Else you’ll not get better. I am hunting for the true murderer, Ambrose. I’ll find him any day now. Then your name will be cleared and you’ll be set free.’
I smoothed back his sweat-tangled hair with one hand, then looked about me for some more water so I could dampen a cloth and lay it on his forehead. But the jug was empty. I glanced up at Brother Jerome, who stood staring down at me, his face in shadow within the curve of his hood. ‘You must make sure he has enough water to drink, Brother Jerome. Bring him water from the old saint’s well, it will help him heal. I will come back tonight, with some powdered willow bark. I must get his fever down!’
The monk did not answer me. I sighed in exasperation and got to my feet.
‘I will see you tonight,’ I promised Ambrose and then picked up my basket and staff, and hurried away. I was still feeling ill-at-ease and jittery. Every looming shadow seemed malevolent. I looked back over my shoulder and saw the silhouette of Brother Jerome crouched in the low doorway. I raised a hand in farewell, but he did not respond.
Thunderdell was waiting for me out in the sunny garth, his tail wagging so hard his whole body twisted from side to side. I wandered about the abbey, picking useful weeds, in case anyone was watching then slowly made my way home, my thoughts preoccupied.
As I walked past the old gatehouse, I saw the king’s lutenist ride up the street, dressed in a crimson velvet doublet, his sleeves puffed, slashed, and folded back to show the golden embroidered sleeve within. His wife rode with him, in a rose–coloured gown with blue sleeves. Despite their finery, both were grim-faced and the lady’s eyes were red and swollen with weeping. I gazed after them, wondering what could be wrong.
Sir Philip von Wilder, the lutenist’s name was. He came from the Low Countries, and had risen high in the king’s esteem. He had been given the abbey lands, at a peppercorn rent. When? I wondered.
If I remembered rightly, he and his retinue had arrived around Easter. He had hired carpenters, stone masons, bricklayers. They had been busy ever since, building him a fine manor house out of the remnants of the south gatehouse.
What if the king’s lutenist had come by the abbey lands illegally? What if the abbot had threatened him? Asked for more money for his silence? What if the lutenist and his wife were racked with guilt, knowing a young man was to die for a crime they had committed?
I was clutching at straws, I knew. Yet I had nothing else. Ambrose was ill. He might die. I needed to bring him home.
I followed the lutenist and his wife up the road to the old gatehouse. I watched them dismount, and give their horses to grooms, and sweep inside, arm-in-arm. I stood outside, sorting my herbs into pretty bunches, ready to offer an excuse for my intrusion. Then I timidly knocked on the door.
It was flung open by a fat, cheerful woman in an apron. ‘Hallelujah! At last!’ she cried. ‘He’s been at his wit’s end. Come in, come in. They’re waiting for you in the drawing-room.’ She hustled me down the corridor and into a big room hung with tapestries. Light streamed in through huge mullioned windows. ‘She’s here!’
‘Excellent!’ Sir Philip cried in a thick foreign accent. ‘We have not much time. Come, come. What shall you sing for us?’
‘Sing?’ I said stupidly.
‘Yes, sing! Is that not why you are here? What can you sing?’
I looked from one face to another, all tense with anticipation, then took a deep breath and began to sing. I had been born singing, my mother always said.
When I had finished, Sir Philip sighed and clasped his hands together. ‘She sings like the angel! The king shall adore her.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I don’t quite know what you mean … the king?’
‘Yes, the king. He marries this week, quite in secret, you understand. To the little Howard girl.’
‘So sad,’ his wife murmured. ‘Surely it is not a good omen?’
‘To marry the same day his chief minister is executed? I would say he does it on purpose. The death bells shall ring and then the wedding bells.’
‘I cannot quite believe it,’ his wife said, shaking her head. ‘Thomas Cromwell, his right-hand man, to lose his head. So suddenly. Who can feel safe?’
Sir Philip’s round kindly face was troubled. ‘None of it makes sense. Why does the king plan to kill his most faithful man, calling him a traitor? He plans to put him to death on the same scaffold as a sodomite! Then, two days later, he plans to hang, draw and quarter his first wife’s priest and make of him a martyr. On the very same day, the Lutheran Robert Barnes is to be burned to death as an infidel. It’s as if the king is mad with bloodlust!’
‘No-one is safe, no-one,’ his wife whispered. Her eyes brimmed over. ‘And poor Bessie Blount, his mistress for so many years, dead this week of an ague, and yet still he persists in marrying in haste, as if he feels not the slightest pang at her death.’ She wiped her eyes with her handkerchief. ‘Indeed we live in terrible times.’
My head was reeling. The king, to marry in secret this week!
And Thomas Cromwell was to be executed as a traitor. Along with a sodomite, a Catholic martyr and a Protestant infidel. And the king’s mistress, who had been called for so long the king’s whore, was dead.
Brother Jerome had foretold all their deaths. He must have the Sight.
I had a strange sensation. As if the world receded around me. Their voices faded, then became strangely loud.
‘But I have found one singer at least,’ Sir Philip was saying. ‘That is a start. I need one more at least. A boy with a glorious voice.’
‘I’m afraid,’ his wife whispered. ‘All these deaths. Can we not just stay here, away from court? At least till all the killing is over?’
‘I cannot,’ her husband said. ‘The king’s will must be obeyed.’
He turned to me. ‘We will ride for London tomorrow. Be ready to go.’
I stared at him in utter stupefaction.
‘To sing,’ he said. ‘At the king’s wedding.’
‘I know a boy,’ I said. ‘With a glorious voice. I … I could bring him.’
Sir Philip’s face lit up. ‘It’s a miracle. I am saved!’
‘He’s … he’s sick.’
‘Not the plague?’
‘No. No! Just … a fever.’
The lutenist’s face puckered. ‘Is he well enough to travel?’
‘I will make sure of it.’
He laughed and caught his wife close, kissing her cheek loudly. ‘If he is well enough to travel, he’ll be well enough to sing. Our bacon is saved!’
I felt giddy with relief and joy. ‘When? When do you want us?’
‘At dawn,’ he said decisively. ‘We can practise on our way. Let us get ready.’ He turned to me, smiling. ‘I have not even asked your name?’
‘I’m Cicely Brightwell, sir. I live just a few houses down the street, in the thatched cottage by the duck pond.’
‘Just think, Agnes. I’ve been riding all over the country looking for a girl who can sing like an angel, and I find her just across the road! Well, Mistress Brightwell, we shall see you tomorrow at dawn.’
He made a gesture of dismissal. I stood my ground. ‘I am sorry, sir, I have just one question.’
‘Of course, of course. Your fee. Do not worry, you shall be amply rewarded. Here is a down payment.’ And he tossed me a bag of coins.
‘Thank you, sir. But that’s not it …’
‘You wish to know if you can bring your dog? But of course! My wife and I love dogs. We have eight of our own. Another one will be no matter.’
Again I tried to ask my question, and again he forged on ahead with great cheerfulness. ‘You are worried about your clothes? We shall provide you with costumes. Something blue, I think, to bring out the colour of your eyes.’
‘Thank you, but …’
‘You worry for your virtue, in the oh-so-wicked court? Reassure your good mother that my wife shall look after you as if you were her own.’
‘No, sir … I mean, thank you sir, it’s just … what I want to ask …’ I found myself suddenly and uncharacteristically tongue-tied.
‘Let her speak, Philip,’ his wife said, laying her hand on his arm.
He smiled at me encouragingly. ‘What is it, my dear?’
‘Where were you on Easter morn?’ I blurted.
Sir Philip gazed at me in surprise. ‘Why, in London, of course. I wish we had not been. The king was in the worst rage I have ever seen. Hating his new wife, blaming poor Cromwell. Monks marrying, the Lenten fast being broken, false recantations on every side. We rode for the peace of the country as soon as we could make an excuse, I promise you.’
‘So you were not here in Cerne Abbas on Easter morn?’
He shook his head, looking puzzled.
‘I will see you at dawn,’ I said in an unsteady voice. ‘With the boy …’
‘The boy with the glorious voice,’ he agreed.
I walked down the muddy road in a daze. I could not believe that I had found a means of getting Ambrose away. And a job with the king’s own lutenist. To sing at the king’s wedding. It seemed impossible.
As I hurried away down the street, I saw a girl picking her way through the rubble. She carried a lute in a polished case. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said to her. ‘The singing job has been taken.’
When Ambrose had run away from the abbey, he had asked me to go with him. He had imagined a glorious life for us, wandering the country, singing like birds, sleeping in haystacks.
‘But what about Mam?’ I had asked. ‘I cannot leave her.’
My mother had wanted me so badly she had taken a stranger by the hand and led him to Giant’s Hill, and lain with him under the stars, clenching his seed inside her. If I went off wandering with Ambrose, she would be left all alone, with no-one to teach her Craft.
‘Stay here with me,’ I had begged, clutching Ambrose’s hand. ‘Mam would love to have you. You could help us …’
He had shaken his head. ‘I don’t want to be a charity case anymore, Cicely. I want to make my own way in the world. And … I don’t mean to be rude … but I don’t want to stay in this tiny village forever, tending pigs and hoeing vegetables. I want to sing!’
‘Can’t you sing here? At feasts and fair days?’
He shook his head. ‘I want to see the world, Cicely. Don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ I had answered uncertainly. ‘But …’
‘But not yet.’ He finished my sentence for me. ‘I understand. You’re only sixteen. And you love your Mam. I tell you what … I’ll come back for you in a year. See if you are ready then.’
For a moment, I had thought Ambrose meant to kiss me and my heart had leapt in my breast like a bird. But he just squeezed my hand, picked up his bundle, and went whistling away down the lane, leaving me forlorn and lonesome.
As the months had passed, I had regretted not going with him so many times. My mother had seen me moping and had, in her quiet way, told me that I must follow my heart. And so I had resolved to tell Ambrose, when he returned, that I would go with him.
But he had never made it back to my door. He had been arrested only five minutes away.
I was determined that we should never be parted again.
So I told my mother what I planned as soon as I whirled in through the door. She did not seem surprised. Indeed, she went to the pantry and drew out a satchel that she had packed for me. I looked inside and saw food, a flask of cool lemon balm tea, a spare chemise, clean stockings, and a thick homespun shawl.
I laughed and hugged her fiercely. ‘You do not mind? Me leaving you?’
She shook her head and kissed me tenderly. ‘I shall miss you every day, my sweet girl, but it’s time for your own life to begin now. You’ll come back one day, when you’re ready.’
‘I will, I promise.’ I clutched the satchel close, thinking of Ambrose. Wondering what he would say when I told him the news. Imagining him swinging me up in his arms and kissing me.
Then I bit my lip. ‘Mam, I may not be able to come back. I haven’t been able to prove his innocence. Surely they will arrest him if we ever return? Won’t the constable keep searching for him?’
She frowned. ‘I hope not. But it’s a shame we could not clear his name, or find out who the true murderer was. I do not like to think he or she may still be here, in the village, living amongst us.’
‘No,’ I agreed, shivering at the thought.
She ladled me some pottage and brought me the bowl. ‘What are your plans, dear heart?’
I ate hungrily. ‘Mam, I want to bring Ambrose here, so he can have a sweet night’s sleep and I can tend him properly. He cannot recover in that horrible little cell. The only problem is …’
‘Mr Ward the constable,’ my mother interjected. ‘Well, that’s no problem. I shall creep out in the dark, with my shawl over my head, and my basket over my arm, and make a great show of looking about me to make sure I am not watched, and then I shall lead him in quite the opposite direction. I had best take Thunderdell with me, though, else he’ll never believe it’s you.’
I laughed and nodded eagerly. ‘You’ll need to lead him on a rope. You know he’ll never leave me willingly.’
Our ruse worked perfectly.
Mr Ward crept down the road after my mother and Thunderdell, dragging against the rope. I waited till they were out of sight, then tiptoed the other way, towards the ruined abbey. The sky was swarming with stars, the east beginning to glow. My heart was singing as joyously as the blackbird. Today Ambrose and I would escape. I remembered the way he had kissed me, and my whole body tingled.
I found it hard crawling through the hole and down into the dank-smelling cellars. I told myself it was for the last time. My small lantern did not shed much light, and wavered wildly in the cold draughts.
The barrel had been rolled over the little wooden door. I managed to roll it aside, only to find the door was locked. I was taken aback, not liking to think of Ambrose locked up inside that filthy little cell. I knocked on the door. ‘Ambrose, it’s me. Cicely. Are you there?’
‘Yes, I’m here.’
I was so glad to hear his voice. He sounded a little stronger.
‘Where is Brother Jerome?’
‘I don’t know. He went away and took the light. It’s as black as the pits of hell in here. Can you let me out?’
‘The door is locked, and Brother Jerome has the key.’
He sighed. I heard him sit down against the door. ‘I’m glad you are here. I woke up and was afraid that I’d been forgotten and would moulder to death down here. It was almost as bad as being in the gibbet.’
‘I’d not forget you.’ I pressed my hands against the door and leaned my forehead against it.
‘I was coming to get you. Do you know that, Cicely?’
‘Yes. If only your father had not been murdered.’
He croaked a laugh. ‘If only I’d not stopped at the river to wash my face and hands, trying to make myself presentable for you. Then I’d have been safe at your house.’
‘Safe in my arms,’ I whispered.
I heard his sharp intake of breath and knew that he had heard me. ‘What are we going to do, Cicely?’ he asked after a moment, in tones of despair.
‘I have news. Such news! As soon as Brother Jerome comes back and unlocks the door, we can go home. You can have a bath, eat some hot pottage, sleep in fresh sheets. And then tomorrow …. Tomorrow!’ My voice thrilled with triumph. ‘We ride for London. You and me and Thunderdell. We go to sing at the king’s wedding!’
He sighed. ‘What a lovely dream. I wish it were true.’
‘It is true! Listen.’ And I told him all about Sir Philip.
‘But … the constable … the murder charge …’
‘I’ve been trying to find out who did it, Ambrose, really I have. I’m so sorry I’ve failed you.’
‘Sweet Cicely,’ he whispered. ‘You could never fail me.’
How I wished he lay in my arms, so that I could bend and press my lips to his. My longing choked me so that I could not speak.
‘When you are well … when you are safe … then we shall solve the mystery,’ I said at last. ‘Together we will find the truth.’
A thought occurred to me. ‘Did you see anything, Ambrose? On the day of the murder? Someone running or hiding? Or anything strange or out-of-place?’
There was a long pause. ‘It was misty that morning, I remember. As I passed through the abbey ruins I saw a dark shape flitting away. It startled me at the time. It looked like a monk in a long black robe. I remember laughing at myself, telling myself that the monks had all gone. Later, as I lay in that stinking gaol, having learned that the abbot was dead, I could not help my flesh creeping. Thinking I must have seen his ghost, you know. But then you took me to the chapel … and I saw Brother Jerome … I realised it must have been him I saw that day, hiding in the ruins.’
‘Yes …’ I sat quietly for a moment, thinking. The cold of the stone floor struck up through the wool of my dress.
‘Ambrose, why do you think the abbot was at the silver well on Easter morning?’
‘I doubt he was there to pray,’ he answered with a snort. ‘Probably he was drawing up some of the healing water for whatever pox he had caught from his whores.’ His voice was bitter, but he caught himself up and added with a laugh, ‘Or he simply wanted to see which of his enemies would die that year.’
‘What?’ I pressed closer to the door. ‘What did you say?’
‘It’s an old superstition. Brother Jerome told me about it, years ago. If you want to know who will die in the coming year, then you look into the well on Easter morning.’
For a moment I was motionless. Then I scrambled to my feet. ‘Ambrose, I know who killed the abbot. Oh, what a fool I am!’
‘Brother Jerome,’ I jerked out. ‘He knew … he knew you would not die in the gibbet … he said he had seen in the pool who would. A traitor and an infidel and a martyr and a whore and a sodomite … he said they would all die like the lecher had. He meant like Father Thomas!’
‘Stop! Slow down. I don’t understand.’
‘Brother Jerome killed the abbot. Oh, Ambrose I need to get you out of there!’
I looked about me for some kind of tool to break down the door, and only then realised that another pool of light had reached out to touch mine. Slowly I raised my eyes. Brother Jerome stood not ten paces away.
He stood hunched, his hood up over his head. His eyes reflected the flames of his lantern. He lifted his other hand. He held a hunk of rock, carved with a winged imp. With a few swift strides he stood over me, swinging the rock at my head.
Instinctively I lifted my staff and struck his hand away. He dropped the rock which crashed against the wall and then to the ground.
‘Cicely!’ Ambrose screamed through the door.
Brother Jerome scrambled to pick the rock up again. I hit him hard over the head with my staff. He dropped to the floor, dazed. I flew to his side and searched him feverishly. He tried to seize me and I kicked him hard in the side. He doubled over, moaning. I found the key and ran to the door. My hands shook so much I could not fit the key in the lock.
A flash of movement in the corner of my eye. I ducked. The rock hit me a glancing blow on the temple. I cried aloud in pain, and fell to my knees. Ambrose shouted my name.
‘Coming,’ I panted, and put the key in the lock and turned it. As I fell back, the door burst open. Ambrose charged out, wielding the broken abbot’s crook like a club. He managed to strike Brother Jerome down just as he raised the rock over my fallen form. Ambrose caught my hand and pulled me to my feet. We stumbled away into the darkness.
Behind us, we heard the old monk begin to mutter prayers and the clink of his rosary. He raised high his lantern, searching for us. Trying to calm our breathing, we crept along the wall.
Without any light, we were soon lost, feeling our way forward with our hands. I felt the curve of an archway, and pulled Ambrose through so we could crouch on the far side. Moments later, the old monk’s light fell where we had been standing. I held my breath, my head ducked down, afraid the light might glint on the white of my eyes and give us away. After an agonisingly long moment, we heard the monk limp away.
Ambrose stood up and helped me to my feet. ‘There is only one thing I shall regret if we die tonight,’ he whispered.
‘What?’ I whispered back.
One hand slid around my waist. The other tilted up my face. His warm mouth found mine. The kiss was unbearably sweet.
‘I have wanted to do that a very long time,’ he whispered, when at last he let me go.
‘You kissed me the night I rescued you from the gibbet,’ I told him, my voice uneven.
‘I had thought that a dream.’ There was laughter in his voice.
‘I’d best make sure you know this one was for real,’ I answered, and rose up on tiptoe to kiss him again.
Then, hand-in-hand, we crept away through the darkness.
The vaults seemed to stretch on forever. Blind, both of us weak and dizzy, we could do nothing but stumble along and hope to find the way out. Then Ambrose kicked his foot against a broken barrel. The sound reverberated through the cellars. The light swung our way, and we heard the monk begin to run.
‘Which way?’ Ambrose cried.
‘I don’t know!’ I sobbed.
Then I heard a far distant howling. ‘Thunderdell!’
I ran in the direction of the howling. Ambrose ran with me and, closing the gap behind us, the monk with his swinging lantern and bloodied rock.
I saw a dim crack of light above us, and the stairs going up. We scrambled up the steps like squirrels, me holding up my skirts so I did not trip. I managed to squeeze out the crack, and then Ambrose wriggled out behind me. Thunderdell flung himself upon me, whining and wagging his tail.
‘Good boy! Good boy!’
He leaped up, almost knocking me over. Then suddenly he swung around, snarling.
The monk stood behind us, mist swirling about him, the sky above the palest of blues. He stepped forward, the rock in his hand dripping rivulets of red down his hand and wrist. My blood. I put my hand to my temple, and only then realised the side of my face was wet with blood.
Ambrose put me behind him. ‘Don’t you come any closer,’ he panted. I put my hand on Thunderdell’s head, keeping him still.
The monk stood silently, a strange intent expression on his face.
‘Did you really kill the abbot?’ Ambrose asked. ‘But … why?’
‘He was an evil man,’ Brother Jerome replied. ‘He made me do evil things. He besmirched this holy place. He brought it tumbling down.’
‘But … why wait a whole year?’ I cried. ‘Why kill him at the holy well?’
Again a long pause, as if the monk was thinking how best to answer. ‘I saw his death in the pool,’ he answered at last. ‘I saw him lying on the stones, blood on his head. And then I turned and there he was, the lecher, coming down to the well. At the very moment in which I had seen his coming death. I saw that I was to be the instrument of fate. So I picked up the wishing stone and I smote him hard.’
‘Why did you not come forward and confess when Ambrose was accused in your place? He was condemned to death for a crime he did not commit.’
Brother Jerome gazed at me with old cloudy eyes. ‘I did not see his death in the pool. I saw many others. The traitor, the sodomite, the infidel, the martyr, the whore. I knew he would not die.’
For a moment his hand faltered, and the bloodied rock was lowered. ‘I should have seen his death and yours too. But I did not.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Because we shall not die today.’
Then I shouted, ‘Thunderdell! Strike!’
My dog leapt forward, knocking the monk backwards. He stood with his heavy paws on the monk’s chest, pinning him down. The monk struggled to be free, then raised his arm as if to strike with the rock. Thunderdell closed his jaws upon the monk’s wrist.
I heaved a great sigh, then looked up as my mother ran towards us, the constable at her heels.
‘Did you hear all that?’ I said accusingly.
The constable nodded. ‘I did. You saw us? You asked those questions so he would confess?’
I smiled wearily. ‘I knew Mam would be near.’
She came to me, clucking her tongue over the wound on my head.
Mr Ward bowed his head to Ambrose. ‘I am sorry for your ordeal. I will take Brother Jerome into custody and inform the assizes of your innocence.’
‘Thank you,’ Ambrose said unsteadily. He squeezed my hand.
‘He’s quite mad, the poor old thing,’ I said, pulling Thunderdell away from the monk. ‘You will not put him in a gibbet, will you? It’d be so cruel.’
‘I think he’ll be sent to Bedlam,’ the constable answered. ‘Nearly as cruel a fate, I’m afraid.’
The mist was swirling away. I looked at Ambrose, filthy and exhausted, and down at myself, my skirts stained with blood and dirt. I began to laugh.
Ambrose smiled at me.
‘It’s dawn,’ I explained. ‘We are meant to be riding to London to sing at the king’s wedding.’
‘The king is to be married again?’ the constable asked in surprise. ‘Is he not already married?’
‘He has set Anne of Cleves aside. He plans to make a queen of Catherine Howard, Anne Boleyn’s cousin. She is only just seventeen.’
‘I hope they will be happy,’ the constable said politely.
‘I know we shall be,’ Ambrose said, suddenly catching me by the waist and swinging me around jubilantly. Then he set me down and kissed me.
‘I think perhaps we’ll be hearing wedding bells ourselves,’ Mr Ward said to my mother.
She smiled. ‘Oh yes. I’ve already made the wedding dress. I think the king must wait to hear my two love-birds sing.’
I laughed. Ambrose smiled and drew me closer, bending his head to kiss me again.
First published in The Silver Well, by Kate Forsyth & Kim Wilkins, Ticonderoga Publications, 2017.
The Silver Well received a starred review in Publishers’ Weekly & won the 2017 Aurealis Award for Best Collection.
‘The Cunning Woman’s Daughter’ also won the 2017 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novella.