The Dragon of Handale by Cassandra Clark is the 5th historical mystery starring Hildegard set in 14th Century England as she returns home pondering the idea of resuming her job as a nun (available March 17, 2015).
Hildegard, no longer a member of the Cistercian order of nuns, has returned to the priory after more than a year from her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Still unsure whether she will rejoin the Order, the Prioress suggests that a visit to Handale Priory might help provide some clarity. Used as a house of correction for sinning nuns, it lies in the north of the county in the middle of a vast wood and is run by the ambiguous Abbess Basilda and her close group of hard-faced acolytes.
While walking about the grounds, Hildegard discovers the corpse of a young man in the morgue. His body bears deep gashes from neck to groin. His wounds appear to be the ravages of claws, but larger than any animal Hildegard knows of. Is it possible that the young man was killed by a dragon, as Hildegard's been told? Of course, Hildegard does not believe in dragons, and despite being warned against it, she goes for a walk in the woods. There she discovers a secret tower, locked and barred, with armed men on guard.
What is so valuable that it needs such protection? Has it anything to do with the mystery of the young man's death? And why have assassins been pursuing the King's courier across the savage moor land only to murder him at a lonely wayside tavern? Hildegard risks all dangers to seek out the truth.
The blade plunged gently between the man’s buttocks, then pushed its full length in one slow movement to the hilt. The action was perfectly controlled. The stiletto was withdrawn and the assassin wiped the blade on his surcoat. His accomplice, pressing the man’s face into the bedclothes, felt the shudder run through him.
Replacing the stiletto in its sheath, the assassin picked up the leather document bag from beside the bed, fingered through it, then threw it to the floor, grunting, “Untie him. Let’s get out.”
* * *
They had picked up the courier’s trail outside York after he left the archbishop’s palace, taking over from the previous riders, who had followed him all the way from Westminster. For sure he became aware of them fairly soon. The flat November light could conceal no one. The roads were deserted, apart from a few peasants walking to the fields.
Autumn rains had churned the track through the forest to mud, and even the well-maintained king’s highway made hellish going. Horses up to their bellies in mud. Slipping, stumbling, near enough breaking their legs to keep up. He was riding at a desperate speed. To make it worse, the rivers were in spate, and many fords were impassable. He gave them a run for their money all right, doubling back on himself, even turning off the road and striking out into dense woodland when the opportunity arose, and generally making life difficult for them. They cursed when they lost him somewhere near Knaresborough but rejoiced when they picked up his trail—more by chance than from their own skill, as they admitted—when he started out across the moors.
“He’s going the wrong away about it if he thinks he’s heading for Alnwick Castle,” observed the elder of the two. His accent was northern but not Scottish. The man with him gave a growl of assent. Like a lymer, he hunted in silence. And he didn’t care where the man was going. He wouldn’t get there.
On the high moor, the trail led towards the coast, Whitby the only town of note unless he decided to strike north to the Tees. He was perfectly visible now, with nowhere to hide in the oppressive desolation. It was made worse by bellied clouds full of sleet. The load was scattered now and then, driving hard fragments of ice into their muffled faces. They allowed him to keep a mile or so ahead, as if running free. He was a dot in the landscape, the only moving thing. A speck of colour hardly brighter than the winter moors, comical really, riding hard down one side of the undulating moorland and equally hard up the other. All that effort.
They saw him disappear over a far ridge, and when they reached the top themselves, there he was again, still kicking up the mud, horse racing as gallantly as ever, with mane flying, across the wide dale below. But even the best courier has to stop sometime.
He chose an inn conspicuously in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps he thought nothing could happen to him with so few travellers on the road. A stranger highly visible in such a place. Anything that happened would be noticed at once, the perpetrators seen and remembered.
Maybe that’s how his pursuers thought about it, as well. His disappearance would be an event in this godforsaken place. His lord and master would be informed as soon as ever. His missive stillborn, as it were. And maybe that’s how they wanted it.
They closed in.
* * *
“Has a companion of ours just ridden up, master?” They knew he had.
The aleman gave them a sharp look. “He might have.”
“Wanting to get his head down for an hour or so, I shouldn’t wonder. We noticed his horse in your yard. He rides like the devil. We have a message for him, but it’s taken us a hell of a ride to catch up with him.” Squat, mongrel-featured, his local accent making him acceptable, and he gave what passed for a smile to add to it.
The alemaster nodded. “He’s bested you, all right. He’s taken t’ chamber up aloft.” He thumbed the air above his head. “Nobody else in this day. The weather. Who’s travelling in this but for thieves and gentlemen such as yourselves?” He lifted an eyebrow. A big man. Veteran of the Scottish wars. A cleaver on the trestle in front of him. He could afford to say what he liked.
“We’ll go and disturb him from his slumber, beggin’ your leave.” The man nudged his companion.
Unchecked, the two went out.
The alemaster was suddenly uneasy. He glanced at his companion, a Saxon blonde, breasts jutting out of her shift the way he liked, and frowned. “What do you say, Mary dove?”
“Oh, let them be. They’re covered in muck. They must have been on the road for hours. It’s nowt to do with us. They can only be heading for Whitby, and what’s there?”
He shook his head. Priests and fish merchants came and went. His regulars were shepherds. When the fair was on at Corpus Christi, it was different.
“Go up and see if you can hear owt.”
Flouncing, but wary of disobeying in case he decided he could do without her, she climbed the wooden stairs and hovered outside the door. Came only the murmur of men’s voices from within. Then a little silence. An exclamation following. Nothing much. When she heard footsteps crossing the floor, she hurriedly slipped back down the stairs, and the two men only caught up with her when she was at the bottom.
The shorter of the two gave her a lingering leer and his glance came to rest on her breasts with such intensity, it seemed he would never look away. “Time for a quick one, mistress?” he asked, his eyes never lifting. He moved closer. She could smell his breath.
“What’s your will, master?”
He squeezed one of the swollen globes and sighed, then pressed himself against her, so she could feel the doorframe digging into her back and the links of his chain-mail hauberk crushing her breasts.
“You’d best ask”—she nodded towards the aleman—“and settle it with him.”
He stepped back. “We’ll eat first. Our friend does not want to be disturbed until morning. He gives you this.” He held up a silver coin. “Later,” he told her as she reached for it. “Don’t be greedy.”
Affronted by the man, she turned to the alemaster, but he pretended not to have heard and instead continued to pour the two guests long stoups of ale from a flagon, then chivvied her into going out back to bring bread and pottage for them.
* * *
When they left, the alemaster lifted Mary’s skirt and gave a groan as he entered her and began to pound her against the counter. When he finished, he wiped himself on a cloth and said, “I thought those bastards would never leave. I didn’t like them.”
“They went back the way they came,” she pointed out. “It must have been an important message to bring them all this way out.” She rearranged her kirtle.
A few customers came in. The day progressed. The night. Morning came.
There was no sound from the guest chamber, and Mary went to stand outside the door to listen to the silence. When it continued and curiosity got the better of her, she pushed open the door and poked her head round.
Slanted light across a bed from between half-closed shutters. Three cloak hooks on the wall. His cloak where he had flung it. Stale straw underfoot. And the guest still in bed.
A cover was pulled up to his shoulders and he lay facedown, one arm trailing to the floor.
Above the ale room’s clatter and stink, the air was fetid with the stench of butcher’s blood.
She had the silver coin safe in the cleft between her breasts. The alemaster had laughed at her. “Think it’s safe there, doxy?” He had proved it wasn’t but, later, had given it back with interest.
Nothing to lose, she went over to the bed. “Master, it’s morning now. He’ll be docking another day’s silver for your extra use of his chamber if you don’t stir yourself.”
The man did not move. Neither was there the rise and fall of breath of someone asleep. When she put out a hand to shake him, she felt the chill of dead flesh under her fingers. She screamed, long and loud.
When she found herself somehow at the bottom of the stairs, the aleman gawped. “What’s up, dove? Your face is as white as a nun’s thighs.”
Hildegard pushed open the door into the prioress’s cell.
“Ah, there you are.” The prioress of Swyne lifted her head from her missal.
Her tone of voice suggested that she had seen Hildegard only moments before. In fact, Hildegard had trudged back to the priory the previous night after more than a year’s absence. She stepped inside the stone chamber and was met by the usual blast of cold air that came funnelling through a small unglazed aperture next to the altar.
“Safely back from Santiago de Compostela,” the prioress commented. “So how was it?”
As no invitation to be seated was made and, indeed, the chamber contained only one small bench, where a cat resided, Hildegard remained standing, as did the prioress.
“The pilgrimage was not without its adventures,” Hildegard began. “As you know, the duke of Lancaster, our ambitious John of Gaunt, had himself crowned king of Castile in the cathedral at Compostela. His militia was much in evidence in the surrounding countryside.”
“I understand his Portuguese ally, King João, has proved more duplicitous than even Duke John could anticipate?”
“Be it so, I believe the duke will find a way to turn the situation to his advantage. He has already shown he means business by having a would-be assassin burned alive in the marketplace at Ourense.”
The prioress raised her eyebrows. “Heaven forfend such barbaric practices do not take hold in the realm of England.”
“I can hardly see King Richard wishing to burn anyone alive. Some say he is too lenient with his enemies.”
The prioress nodded. “I believe it. And he is reaping the harvest of his softness already. But what about Compostela itself?”
“Bursting at the seams with pilgrims from all over Europe. A most feisty bunch. The cathedral custodians are forced to swing a great censer of incense above the nave to keep down the stink of unwashed bodies. Of course,” she added generously, “most of them have walked from as far afield as Flanders, an immense distance. We English only had to walk the eighty miles or so from Coruña, and we had ample opportunity to wash. In fact, the friars at the refuges on the way make a point of bathing the feet of pilgrims in thyme soaked in sweet springwater as they arrive.”
“No doubt for their own comfort,” the prioress sniffed. “And you yourself?” She gave Hildegard a piercing glance.
“I—” Uncharacteristically, Hildegard faltered.
“Travelling as Mistress York without the protection of your Cistercian habit must have been an interesting experience?”
“It was, but I was fortunate enough to meet a helpful group of pilgrims on board the ship from Bordeaux and in particular a Bristol merchant who took everybody under his wing and made sure none of us was shortchanged.”
“As it happens. His pilgrimage was in order to light a candle for his wife at the shrine of Saint James.”
The prioress gave her another piercing glance. “You would both have something in common, then?”
Hildegard lowered her head.
“And were you invited to become this merchant’s wife?”
“I believe the idea crossed his mind.”
“And you were tempted?”
Her head shot up. “Hardly so. Nor do I wish to be anybody’s wife.”
“After that no-good fellow you were involved with in London, I’m not surprised.”
Hildegard gave the prioress a stare of such coldness even she faltered and added hurriedly, “I was led to believe that Rivera was a spy for Bolingbroke and therefore an enemy of our anointed king?”
“He saw his error.”
“So, after Brother Rivera, as I said—”
“Nothing more would have been possible at that time,” Hildegard said hoarsely. “Not between us. I was always aware of that. There was too much against us and—” She broke off, scarcely able to speak for the lump in her throat. At least his name was out in the open, and with the prioress observing her so closely, she felt little need to add anything else.
“If you feel like that,” the prioress observed more softly after a considering pause, “you may as well rejoin the Order.” She gave Hildegard a good long look. It was not without kindness. “But you’re still undecided?”
She nodded, but before she could excuse her reluctance to make a decision, the prioress smiled. “I have an idea, Hildegard. If you’re doubtful about us here at Swyne, and still see yourself as a lost soul—which the Church undoubtedly does—then why not stay as a guest at another priory? See things from another side?”
“How do you mean?”
“Stay at a different monastic house belonging to another Order, without the obligation of donning a habit.”
“Somewhere like Watton?”
The prioress laughed. “With all the overprivileged ladies and their little dogs? Hardly! I can’t see that appealing to you. I’ll ask my brother about a congenial place in the north of the county.” The brother she referred to was Alexander Neville, archbishop of York. The previous year, Hildegard had been his eyes and ears during the time of the Westminster Parliament. He fell foul of the king’s enemies and his situation had become precarious.
“Is he back at his palace at York?” she asked now.
“He is.” The prioress looked disconcerted for a moment but shrugged the matter aside. “He’s likely to know somewhere that would suit you. This East Riding air is too mild for you at present.”
Hildegard was already shuddering with cold in the chill cell.
The prioress, as ever, seemed oblivious to it. “I’m thinking of somewhere near Northumberland’s territory.” She smiled. “Let me think on it.”
Suspecting her of an ulterior motive with her reference to the earl of Northumberland, whom some were calling the “king of the north,” Hildegard was unsurprised when the prioress exclaimed, “I know just the place for you! Small, remote, bracing—and Benedictine. That should help you achieve clarity. It’s called Handale Priory. Go there.”
“Very well.” Wondering what she would find to do in such a place except pray for Rivera’s soul and her own, she went out into the cloister as soon as she was dismissed. The prioress, however, called her back.
“It may be as dull as you obviously imagine, but I’ve heard an interesting report that the serpent has been seen again.”
“Oh, some faradiddle about a fire-breathing monster, a kind of dragon, they say. Feeds on virgins. Superstitious nonsense, of course, but it should be enough to take your mind off things. Oh, by the way,” she added, “I permit you to take an extra cloak. You’ll need it up there.”
It was not in the prioress’s power to permit or forbid anything at present, as Hildegard had not yet renewed her vows, but she merely nodded her head in thanks and left.
* * *
With her bag as yet unpacked after the long pilgrimage back across the sea from northern Spain, Hildegard had little to do but have her boots repaired and a horse readied for her onwards journey to Handale.
Attired in the garments of a townswoman, she felt out of place at Swyne among the familiar white-robed sisters who had been her companions in the past and she was now glad to have an excuse to leave. To their questions, she had no answers. She did not know whether she would rejoin the Order, having left it after discovering that her husband, believed dead, was alive. Much else had happened to send her on the long miles to Compostela, there to light candles for Rivera, the man for whom she would willingly have relinquished her soul into the flames of hell if it would have brought him back to life.
Now she knew that if the desire to achieve certainty about rejoining the Cistercians had been her aim, then it had failed. There was something to be said for living outside the Order as an ordinary woman in the thick of everyday events. Much to be said, also, for renewing her vows and returning to life in a nunnery, where she might do some good.
Maybe Handale Priory and its nuns would provide an answer to her dilemma.
She wondered if Abbot Hubert de Courcy shared the Church’s view that she was a soul lost to God’s grace.
* * *
Aware of the immense stretch of country from the River Humber, south of Swyne, and to the Tees in the north, and between the long and varied coastline to the east and the mysterious Pennines to the west, she contemplated the journey to Handale with misgivings. It was a bleak and largely unpeopled stretch of country once the city of York was left behind.
She set out.
Holderness, where the priory at Swyne lay, soon merged with the undulating hills and secret dales of the Wolds before the land turned savage as the moors were reached.
At their northerly point, near no great market town, and served only by the castle of Kilton—itself nothing more than a fort to hold the coast road between north and south—came the ridged-backed ironstone hills of Handale Forest, with the priory of the Benedictines at its heart.
She arrived at Earl Roger de Hutton’s castle north of York, halfway to her goal.
* * *
“Handale?” he shouted. “God’s bollocks, Hildegard, why do you want to go there?”
Hildegard, feasted and somewhat feted, for Roger was fond of her, had told him straightaway the purpose of her journey and looked at him with renewed misgivings.
“What do you mean, Roger? It can’t be as bad as that. My prioress suggested it. My onetime prioress, that is, at Swyne.”
“I don’t need to be told who you mean, and I’d like to know her motive,” he said.
“I could think of nothing better to do now I’m back from pilgrimage. I feel unsettled. I don’t know what to do. Whether to rejoin the Order if they’ll have me back or to stay out. But if I stay out, then what? She seems to think time at Handale will persuade me to renew my vows.”
“Or put you off for good,” he grunted with satisfaction. “It’s in the middle of nowhere. You’ll hate it.”
“Have you been?”
“No, of course not. Nobody has. Why would they? But strange stories are circulating. The previous prioress left in a hurry not long since. It’s supposed to be a secret, dark, brutish place with nothing good to be said for it.”
“I’m told she was offered a comfortable corrodiary in York and the new one came in to sort things out—whatever that means.”
Roger indicated to his page to pour more wine. “You’ll be there as Mistress York, will you?”
“I have no choice until I discuss my return to the Order with Abbot de Courcy.”
“Hubert will want you back in the fold. He’ll stop at nothing to get you back.”
“It won’t be his personal decision.”
Roger dismissed this. “Stay with us,” he coaxed. “I’ll find a handsome knight for you.” He regarded her with some sympathy. He knew what had happened last year down in Westminster when King Richard had called Parliament to plead for a war fund to defend the country against the French invasion. But the place had been full of spies. A vicious bloodletting had followed. Enmities at court and in the City of London had come to a head in a brutal clash of rival factions. The dukes had made their first open move against the young king, Richard II, and Hildegard had been caught up in it. The king’s position was now even more precarious. The struggle for power was not over.
“King Dickon was in York while you were overseas,” Roger told her. “His uncle Thomas Woodstock has been running the royal council to his own advantage while young Dickon kept away from London, trying to drum up support from the rest of the country.”
“Was he successful?”
“Not very. People are sick of war. And he hasn’t fully come round to the idea that he needs an army of his own. He’ll soon learn words and promises come cheap. He seems to think verbal support is enough, without the backing of strong steel. The dukes rarely travel without their armed escorts and enough bowmen to frighten anybody. Dickon needs to do the same if he’s to stand up for himself and protect the Crown.” He gave a snort. “I’ll definitely be turning out if he gives the summons.”
“Is it likely?”
He looked grim. “You’ve been out of the country. You have no idea what’s been going on. Those three traitors have raised armies, and the latest news is that the duke of Warwick is standing by at Waltham Cross, just outside London. Is that a threat or what? Thomas Woodstock and that snake Arundel are heading that way with their own musters. Meanwhile, we sit and wait for Dickon to call us to arms.”
“I heard something like that was intended by Arundel when I arrived at Southampton. He was engaging men down there. He’s done it now, has he? He’s always been an ally of Thomas Woodstock. And they say the king is at Windsor?”
“What’s their excuse for threatening him?”
“They say it’s because they don’t trust him. He’s supposed to have been plotting to murder them in their beds—”
“Woodstock’s been trying to ruin the king’s name ever since he was made to look a fool at Smithfield.”
“It’s not Woodstock any longer. It’s the duke of Gloucester.” Roger snickered. “He’s still a prickmaster, whatever his name. But let me tell you this: They’re spreading a story that the king went on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, his real purpose being to barter Calais and Guînes for French help against his own countrymen!”
“That can’t be true!”
“It’s true that they say it, but I agree, it can’t be true. He would never do any such thing. He knows the value of both places and would never give them away, let alone do a deal with the French. But folk are so dumb-skulled, they’ll believe anything they’re told. Where’s their evidence for such lies, I ask!”
“So what are they going to do with their armies? They won’t march against the king himself?” Hildegard looked shocked.
Roger scowled. “They will if they get an excuse they can pass off as a good one.”
“Let’s hope they don’t manage it. But tell me, where does Bolingbroke stand in all this? Is he in with them?”
“He hasn’t shown his hand yet. He’ll wait until he sees which way the wind’s blowing. He’s got three men between himself and the Crown.” Roger ticked them off on his hand. “He’s got his father, the duke. His uncle Gloucester so-called. The fourth earl of March, the king’s chosen heir. Bolingbroke can wait for his father to succumb to natural forces. But how can he get rid of Gloucester? He’s in his prime. And the earl of March is a child, with years ahead of him, God willing. Bolingbroke’s going to have a long wait before the Crown falls to him in any natural way. Make of it what you will. To me, it’s as plain as a pike up the backside. He’ll wait, and when his chance comes, he’ll grab it with both hands.”
“His father’s still in Castile, crowned in St. James at Compostela, and doing deals left and right, so I heard.”
“While everybody here is bowing and scraping to favourite son Bolingbroke. He’s all but duke of Lancaster by now. Gaunt should get himself home, or he’ll find he hasn’t got a duchy to come home to. Do you realise, Hildegard”—Roger looked grim—“I’m one of the few magnates here to give the king outright support?”
“I hope you’ll keep it that way.”
“I will. And so will Ulf.”
Hildegard’s expression lightened. “How is dear Ulf?”
“Married and miserable.”
“Nothing more to be said, Hildegard. You’ll go that way out when you leave here?”
“I need to get to Handale soon. I’ve been travelling for months. But I will see him. I want to. He’s always in my thoughts. I’ll settle at Handale first.”
* * *
Earl Roger de Hutton, with his uncharacteristic gloom, worried Hildegard. It was over a year since she had been embroiled in affairs of the realm, albeit in a minor role, but now it seemed there was work to be done again. Handale would afford no opportunity to participate.
On a different level, it was saddening to hear that Ulf was unhappy with his new wife. No doubt things will shake down after the first few troubled months, she told herself. Ulf was probably too used to doing things his own way. She could scarcely imagine the sort of woman who would be able to tame Roger’s wild northern henchman.
Turning her horse’s head towards the north, she set out on the final leg of her journey.
Copyright © 2015 by Cassandra Clark.
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Cassandra Clark lives in London. The Dragon of Handale is the fifth novel in her acclaimed series featuring Abbess Hildegard. Her childhood spent in Yorkshire was her inspiration for the series.