When Hildegard is sent on a mission to the fabulous papal palace in Avignon, she is well aware that Clement VII is known throughout Europe as the Butcher of Cesena and, with England at war, she will have to watch her step while inside the very stronghold of the enemy. Shortly after arriving, an English knight and his brutal bodyguards turn up. He is a vassal of one of young King Richard's deadliest rivals. What is his purpose in Avignon? Why has he abducted two innocent men from the streets of London and smuggled them into the palace? And, worse for Hildegard, two other Englishmen are here, one close to her heart but a traitor to the king and the other a violent and dangerous obsessive. When the body of a chorister is found stabbed on a sack of gold inside Clement's most secret and private treasury, Hildegard cannot walk away from the troop of young pages who seek her help in finding his killer. Can she solve the puzzle of the murder before the murderer finds her? Danger follows the intrepid nun every step of the way to a final and gruesome reckoning.
Hawkwood is outdone in brutality by Robert of Geneva. A churchman.
Robert, a papal legate, so the story goes, pays Hawkwood for the use of his troops. His idea is he will use military force to make Cesena’s inhabitants accept papal rule. They value their freedom and refuse his offer. Not to be thwarted Robert commands his troops to surround the town. He will starve the inhabitants until they welcome his rule. The citizens resist. Now news comes that Robert has ordered the massacre of everyone in Cesena, women, children, the old, the infirm. The men have already been slaughtered.
They say there were over 3,000 unarmed citizens within the walls. Three thousand? Others claim it is more like eight thousand - whichever, the entire population of this little walled town in the region of Forli is massacred.
A few months later the same Robert, victor at Cesena, son of the Count of Geneva, is chosen as Pope Clement VII by the French cardinals in opposition to the elected Pope Urban VI who sits in Rome. So begins the Schism and the rule of two popes in Europe.
That was ten years ago. And still the Butcher of Cesena, as Clement is known, is Pope in Avignon.
Hildegard. Getting dressed in the dark. Sickly smell of the other nun, sweating unwashed in her straw. Found her winter shift and pulled it on over her linen. Fumbled for her boots. One, but where was the other one? Fingers closing over the stout leather when she scrabbled under the bed. Thrusting in her foot, rapidly tightening the laces then pulling her cloak from the tangle of blankets, straightening as she dragged it over her shoulders.
A courier had ridden into the palace in Avignon as night fell. Ahead of the pack. With fresh news from England.
It is utterly unbelievable.
If what he said were true it was truly the End Days. At first Hildegard dismissed his words as nothing but malicious tittle-tattle. Heard the gloating delight in his voice. Then, just now, the clatter of hooves in the forecourt had drummed into a dream where she was riding out with Hubert on a hunting day, his hawk regarding her with sombre jealousy, and the tumult of hooves on the cobbles and the shouts of English voices jerked her fully awake. Through the window slit she saw a tumult of horsemen in the yard. Banners. Flaring cressets. Smoke. Steel. And she knew at once, last night’s rumour was true.
Something momentous had happened.
The door creaked as she opened it and her cell sister muttered something about cats but Hildegard was already out in the freezing corridor, treading as swiftly as she could over the flag stones, guessing her way through the palace labyrinth, Clement VII, a black spider at its heart, crouching over his gold.
She was stopped at the outer doors by the sentry.
‘More news from England?’ she asked in French.
‘More than that, a knight and his retinue. I trust we’re not at war, domina.’
‘Pray it’s a problem we can overcome.’
He let her pass, his fear not, my lady echoing down the passage after her.
As she hurried down the wide steps leading into the Great Courtyard her thoughts were running wildly over the facts.
The first attack against King Richard was aimed at his chancellor Michael de la Pole, impeached at the behest of the King’s Council. That was one thing. The King, however, had given his liegemen a good Christmas at Windsor, seating him on his right to show what he thought to his uncles’ arrogance in calling de la Pole into court and, against all the evidence, daring to accuse him of embezzlement. But what had come next, according to last night’s courier, was a thousand times worse.
Sir Simon Burley, the renowned war hero and the kings’ personal tutor, now indicted on a charge of treason?
The Chief Justiciar, Tresillian, also accused of treason?
The Archbishop of York indicted on the same charge?
It was beyond belief.
But this was what the courier had announced. Gleeful. England on the brink of civil war!
Only last year Hildegard had travelled down with the Archbishop from his diocese of York to attend the Westminster parliament King Richard had called to counter a threatened French invasion. The archbishop had been at the height of his powers then. Even so, he told her of fears for the future, warned her to return to her nunnery and live a quiet and blameless life. The king’s enemies will not sleep until they have his crown.
And now he was under arrest?
It was known that King Richard’s uncle, the royal prince,Thomas of Woodstock, wanted to isolate the young king so that he could force him to submit to his will.
But surely it could not be true that Woodstock, acting in the name of the King’s Council, had summarily arrested such loyal men as these?
Woodstock, desperate for the crown of England?
She could not believe the king’s youngest uncle would go so far in his lust for power.
Last night, the courier had been jubilant. Picking up his information at Calais. Riding south to Avignon. Galloping his mud-stained horse under the Porte des Champeaux into the Great Courtyard of the palace. Knowing he had valuable news for Pope Clement, that England was further weakened. Clement must be hymning with joy. Confidant he would soon drag the English into his power. With Prince Thomas as an ally how could he fail?
Hildegard glanced up at the forbidding towers of the Old Palace where high up the single window slit of Clement’s private chambers gleamed with light. Cressets burned in other windows in the private apartments. Shadows crossed and recrossed.
Down the last of the steps into the main courtyard. Breathless with fear. The tumult echoed within the walls. A crowd had gathered round the retinue still riding in even now under the portcullis. Stable hands, attending the horses, night servants, monks and a cardinal or two with their pages, everyone dragged from sleep, night cloaks pulled round shoulders, wind swirling in eddies across the yard. A miserable January night. Monastics irritable at being dragged from their beds between the offices. Little enough sleep. Ill tempers later. And here, now, at the centre of this turmoil, an Englishman and his retinue.
Hildegard stared at the blazon on the surcoats of his men-at-arms. Unconsciously she pulled her hood lower to conceal her face. I know that badge. It depicted the arms of a prince of the blood royal. Red, blue, gold. The light glittered over the crowned leopards, the fleur de lys, the silver border.
Her worst fears were confirmed. It was the blazon of Prince Thomas of Woodstock.
She melted in among the people milling round to hear what was being said.
Torches stuttered light into the faces of the riders. Mail glinted. Weapons were visible as flashes of lethal steel. There was a smell of naptha. Flames sizzled into the night. Smoke hung in a pall over the yard. The knight at the head of this raucous crowd gripped the reins of his caparisoned mount with one mailed hand as the glare from the torches sent his face into dark then light and back to dark. He raised his other fist in a salute of triumph. Hildegard stared.
I know you. You’re Sir John Fitzjohn.
Roaring with laughter at a quip by one of his men, with a sneer against the French to please his hosts - who were a fiefdom on their own and not subject to any French king but vassals only to the King of Heaven himself - he managed to express the physical superiority of a military man against unarmed monastics with every gesture. He made it clear he was not here to beg. Sir John, blond, big-boned, battle-scarred. Sure of his welcome.
Hildegard took in the value of his armour, the worth of his horse, the nobility of his hounds.
His mother had been one of John of Gaunt’s many mistresses. Royal blood, therefore, ran in his veins. Duke John had allowed him the name Fitzjohn to give his bastard some status, siring several more children by the same woman before meeting Katharine Swynford who cajoled her way into the role of first concubine after his wife, the saintly Duchess Blanche, died of the plague. The children he fathered on Katharine became known as the little Beauforts. Now nearing adulthood they preceded the Fitzjohns in all matters of importance which naturally led to friction. In fact, the younger brother of Sir John Fitzjohn had turned out badly. Escrick Fitzjohn was a name that still aroused in Hildegard a feeling of fear and revulsion.
Sir John was laughing out loud while his eyes searched the crowd in the glare from the swinging lanterns. He was handsome in a bold, strong-boned manner, no doubt about that. His mother had been a renowned beauty like all Gaunt’s mistresses, but haughty, despite her origins, a quality she had obviously passed on to her eldest son. The arduous journey from England had not daunted his spirits. He was searching the crowd more closely now as if for a particular face. Hildegard noticed one of the foreign cardinals being conducted through the milling onlookers, his pages carving a path for him, then Fitzjohn swung down from his horse and extended his arms in greeting. They embraced. The Englishman knelt to receive a blessing. Straightened at once, by no means humbled. Towering over the elderly cardinal. All smiles.
She tried to get closer but managed to hear only a few floating phrases, could hear the chuckles of the men standing near to Fitzjohn. A name or two hovered on the air. She edged further into the crowd.
Simon Burley, she heard, ears straining. That old war horse...in the knackers’ yard at last. A rumble of complacent laughter from those nearest. Hildegard burned with fury.
When she turned away as the crowd drifted towards the palace she had heard enough to be stunned by the rumours now confirmed: Burley, Tresillian, Neville. All three impeached. Two other knights she knew to be as loyal to King Richard also on the list. And the final outrage, the condemnation of the mayor of London, Nick Brembre. A man more loyal to the king could not anywhere be found.
She walked in appalled fury after the heedless mob. The only crime of the accused was loyalty to the young king. The so called King’s Council was controlled by Richard’s uncle, Thomas of Woodstock. And now the Council had spoken.
If they are accused of being traitors it will lead us to civil war - unless opposition is suppressed as it was during the Peasants’ Revolt. She recalled the bloodbath that had followed the people’s demands for bread and liberty.
Horror stricken she paced the yard as the rest of the onlookers flocked into the gaping entrance to the palace.
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