Alyson Weaver, five times wife and a now a widow of Bath, is back in her birth city of Bath fighting for her life in a sultry July, 1386. If she and legal advocate Solomon cannot answer devious Prior Herbert’s witchcraft charges, she will be burned to death for heresy and murder. Townsfolk turn against her, including the powerful and venomous Mary Tucker and Alyson’s daughter Margery. Peter’s paramour Isabel and bastard son Lawrence are hoping to seize her property, as are Peter’s grasping kindred. Prior Herbert hates her and Bath coroner Thomas Newby is out for revenge for her championing of those he abuses. Alyson herself had reasons to want Peter dead and Solomon, a church-trained lawyer full of clerical prejudice against women, finds it difficult to like or believe her. Nor can the reader be sure of her innocence. Her friend Felise is seemingly made dangerously ill by one of Alyson’s potions. Margery will speak at the inquest about her father, Peter, testimony which will harm Alyson.
The inquisition begins at Prior Herbert’s sumptuous local manor, where Alyson is attended by her servants, advocate Solomon, and the slippery Pardoner Christopher from An Older Evil. She defends herself stoutly and Solomon is impressive but her steward Gervase is revealed to be a heretic. Gervase is threatened with torture and Alyson and her party have to fight their way off the manor. Then, in a chance discovery by her page, Oliver, Alyson realises that Prior Herbert was right: Peter, her amoral husband, had made enemies all his life and was murdered by poison.
Through the streets and taverns of Bath, Alyson and Solomon have to find out who poisoned little-mourned Peter to save her from the stake and before the murderer gets nervous of her probing and strikes again.
Booted and spurred, sitting almost indecently astride a huge chestnut stallion, Mistress Weaver rode through the churchyard, watched by a small group of men sheltering from the rain in the porch of St. Michael’s outside the walls of Bath. She was a strapping female in a black gown and wimple and a vast scarlet hat and, seeing her for the first time, Solomon the advocate was dumbfounded.
Waiting out of the weather to accost Mistress Weaver before she dismounted by the old yew tree—as was her reported custom—Solomon had only recognised the woman by her hat. His patron, Lord Arthur, had described its streamers and extravagance of lace with relish: “All part of Alyson’s red bonnet, young man. When you spot her, you’ll understand.”
Solomon did understand. But the rest of Arthur Gascelyn’s account of a dainty, put-upon widow wrongly accused of murder did not match the lusty, wide-hipped figure cantering toward him out of the drizzle of a fading July day in1386. Solomon frowned harder the closer she came. Her features were too bold, her carriage too proud, her cheeks too red.
And her eyes were altogether too sharp. She had spotted his attention, picked him out instantly.
She reined in, her face set, and jabbed a toe at him. “Lord Arthur sent you?”
Aggrieved that she should divine his purpose so easily, Solomon clamped his right hand deep into his cloak. “Mistress Weaver, I’ve a letter from Lord Arthur—”
“—of recommendation. Yes, I’ve no doubt. And one of your rings will bear the Gascelyn crest: my Lord is generous in his ring giving. But your clothes say what you are, so stop skulking in there and come say what you must. Others have greater claims on me than you.”
Fighting to keep his temper, Solomon stalked round the eyebrow-wagging huddle of menfolk, ignoring the whispered snigger, “The lad’s a touch snooty for her ladyship but she’ll take him all the same.”
I’ll see her in hell first. Solomon refused to look up as the widow rolled down off her steep red horse, her boots spraying dirt over his. Reeking of sheep oil, she stood closer to him than anyone had dared to do for years, except his boy Yves. Softening as he thought of his quiet, merry, eighteen-year-old servant, Solomon was relieved that Yves had remained at their lodgings for the evening, out of danger of this female contagion.
“I’m sorry, but I’m straight from the shearing field. My steward’s over there.” Alyson Weaver waved at a tall cross in the middle of the churchyard, an obvious meeting place and one surrounded by horses and men. “You do know I’m a weaver? Lord Arthur tends to forget that there are roles in life beyond waging war.”
The barb found its target. Blushing under his tan for having his prejudice so brutally exposed, Solomon murmured, “We must speak together at some length, Mistress Weaver. From my understanding you are beset by troubles.”
“I’ve another duty first.”
Nodding to strolling acquaintances—all men, Solomon noted—she guided him, their heads level, their strides equal, to a greening grave bathed in a pink pool of sunset, unshadowed by the dark branches of the nearby yew.
Alyson Weaver arranged her wide skirts and knelt at the grave. “My Bela never craved the dark. She was killed before her time. Did my lord tell you that? I had her buried in the light, with the flowers she loved.” She brushed one of the pale pink blossoms of the dog rose planted in place of a coffin slab and bowed her head.
Kneeling in turn, Solomon was shocked by the widow’s whispers: no prayers but a stream of trivialities, spoken directly to her buried maid as if the girl could hear them.
“Hay harvest’s done. Kaskill has a crusader’s tan from his outdoor work. We’ve finished the sheep shearing today, no thanks to Joan Shepherd. I’ll have to go to York soon. I’m not sure I want to.”
“Madam—” About to upbraid the woman and remind her of the very real danger she was in, Solomon stopped when he realised she was silently weeping. Looking properly at her now, he saw that her colour was down to artifice, not nature: the flesh beneath was drawn and grey. Her voice cracked in telling its simple news. Her hands trembled in their re-forming of a graveside posy of rosemary, a recent offering but one already grazed over and stamped on. In the face of this and the ultimate futility represented by the grave, her body was stiff and angular, braced against everything.
Shame swept over Solomon. How could he of all people fail to recognise another’s grief? What did he know of such weariness, he who at five-and-twenty was never ill, who need never toil at manual labour? Embarrassed, the young advocate leapt to his feet. Determined not to harry his potential client, he took several deep breaths, making a study of where she lived, of the surroundings which had shaped her and her neighbours.
About him, stragglers from the day’s churchyard market were packing up, stalls being taken down, children and servants gathered together. Five squealing pigs were being hauled back to town. A light shower, too delicate to drive pilgrims and townsfolk into the taverns, smeared the low stinking river and grey city walls. Above their ruined turrets, the abbey tower dominated a mother-of-pearl sky.