Susanna Gregory

Historical crime fiction. Medieval murder mysteries.
    Restoration intrigue and treachery.

A Head for Poisoning

A Head for PoisoningThe Second Sir Geoffrey Mappestone Mystery

Geoffrey hopes to enjoy some piece and quiet at his family’s estate, but instead finds a series of startling murders that only he can solve.

In the year 1101, disgusted with the political bickering among the lords who rule the Holy City, Sir Geoffrey Mappestone returns to his home at Goodrich Castle in the Welsh border. He is travelling in the company of a knight who claims to be carrying an urgent message for King Henry I. When the knight is killed during an ambush, Geoffrey feels obliged to deliver the message to the King himself, but quickly regrets his decision when the King orders him to spy on his own family in order to ferret out a dangerous traitor.

Geoffrey returns home to find his father gravely ill and his older brothers and sister each determined to inherit the Mappestone estates. And they are not the only claimants for the lands that will soon fall vacant – the powerful and sinister Earl of Shrewsbury has an acquisitive eye on them, as does their volatile Welsh neighbour, Rhodri of Llan Martin. Geoffrey’s father claims he is being poisoned by one of his own children, a claim no one takes seriously until he is found murdered with his own knife in the dead of night.

Geoffrey’s investigation of the murder, however, takes him far beyond a family quarrel. Accusations are flying, and Geoffrey must prove his own innocence in the face of greed and fear. The dodgy Earl of Shrewsbury is clearly implicated, and as Geoffrey delves deeper, he discovers a plot that reaches far beyond the realm of Goodrich Castle to that of the entire kingdom: the assassination of the King.

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Extract

May, 1100; Welsh Borders

The early morning mist lay thick and white across the river, and there was a chill in the air. The young priest shivered in his threadbare habit as he waited for the lord of the manor and his retinue to make their way through the long grass of the graveyard to the church. He glanced up, and saw that the sky was a pale, cloudless blue, heralding the beginning of yet another fine spring day. From behind him came an impatient sigh, followed by some furious muttering.

‘Just a few more moments,’ he called softly to the waiting villagers. ‘They are almost here.’

‘We have the crops to finish planting,’ came the aggravated tones of Tom Ingram, a surly man given to complaining. ‘It is all very well for them up at the castle to roll out of their beds when they please, but while we wait here for them to deign to appear for mass, the day is trickling away.’

‘It is true, Father!’ grumbled the parish ditcher. ‘We cannot stand here all day waiting for them. We have work to do in the fields while the weather holds.’

‘I know’ said Father Adrian. ‘But they are here now. And Lady Pernel is with them.’

He had not intended to provide this additional piece of information, but his surprise at seeing her walking towards his church with her kinsmen had startled him.

‘Lady Pernel?’ echoed Tom Ingram in disbelief, pushing past the priest to see for himself. ‘What does she want here? She never usually bothers with church.’

‘Keep your thoughts to yourself, Tom,’ warned Adrian. ‘If Lady Pernel has decided to atone for her wicked ways, then it is a matter between her and God, and nothing for you to comment on.’

Ingram snorted in derision. ‘Atone for her wicked ways! She has probably come to see whether the church has any silver worth stealing! Those Mappestones at the castle claim that there is no money to pay for our roofs to be mended, but they all live well enough on the profits from the manor. And that Lady Pernel is always dressed in clothes fit for a queen!’

There were murmurs of agreement from the other villagers, which had only just died down when the august group from Goodrich Castle entered the church. Walking with aloof dignity, they made their way to the Mappestone family pew near the chancel. Adrian waited until they had settled themselves, hoping that Ingram and his cronies would manage to keep their disapproval of yet more time wasting to themselves. Sir Godric Mappestone, the bad-tempered lord of the manor and one-time hero of the Battle of Hastings, was not a man to tolerate insolence from his villagers, and Adrian did not want trouble in his church.

The priest studied the Mappestone family as they tried to make themselves comfortable on the hard wood of the benches. Sir Godric sat in the best seat, scowling at nothing in particular and playing with the worn silver-handled dagger that he always claimed had been given to him by William the Conqueror. In his prime, Godric had been a strong, tall man with a head of thick light brown hair, but he was ageing rapidly. His hair was now grizzled, and his face was haggard and grey with the pain of some sickness that had been plaguing him for the past few weeks.

Sitting next to him was Lady Enide, his youngest child, and to Adrian’s mind, the best of the whole brood. He smiled at her and she smiled back, dark green eyes dancing with their customary merriment, and her long, brown plait of hair swinging jauntily down her back in the curious style that she had always favoured.

Next to her was her older sister Joan, who looked plain and shrewish next to Enide’s pleasing radiance. Joan clung possessively to the arm of her husband, Sir Olivier d’Alençon, who was several inches shorter than she, and always looked as though he wished he were somewhere else.

Bringing up the rear was their infamous sister-in-law, Pernel. She leaned languorously on the eager arm of a richly dressed knight who wore, Father Adrian noted with disapproval, full battle armour complete with a broadsword. He considered asking for the weapon to be left outside the church, but he was afraid that the delay would provoke his restless parishioners to some indiscretion if more time were lost.

Pernel looked splendid that morning. Her dark eyes gleamed like bright coals, and her complexion was clear and alabaster. Luxurious tresses of raven-black hair hung down her back, held away from her face by a delicate silver circlet, and her russet gown appeared to be made of the finest silk. Adrian saw Tom Ingram gaping at her with what could only be described as naked lust, and hoped Godric or Sir Olivier did not notice.

Once the church was silent, Adrian began the mass, chanting the Latin in a clear, strong voice. He found himself unable to concentrate, and made several mistakes – not that anyone noticed. Most of the villagers were either asleep or staring out of the windows, while the company from the castle were talking among themselves in low, bored voices. Only Enide paid any attention, and Adrian was not even sure that she was concentrating as well as she might. Although she watched him, her eyes had the distant look that suggested that she was thinking about something else.

Finally, the mass was over, and the villagers fretted impatiently while the nobles made their stately way outside. Sir Olivier’s shrill laughter echoed across the churchyard, accompanied by the deeper rumble of Sir Godric’s voice. Adrian made his way towards them, bowing politely and wishing them good day, but although Sir Olivier nodded and Enide smiled, none of the others deigned to acknowledge his presence. Lady Pernel pretended to stumble in the grass, and clutched at the tall knight’s arm while smiling coquettishly at him.

‘Could your husband not could come to church today, my lady?’ asked Adrian, with what he hoped was a guileless smile. He saw Enide muffle a snort of amusement.

‘My husband is busy,’ replied Pernel, eyeing the priest with dislike, not pleased to be reminded of her marriage to Sir Godric’s second son while the was flirting with the handsome knight. ‘Sir Malger is visiting us from Normandy, and he offered to accompany me this morning in Stephen’s place.’

‘The pleasure is all mine,’ said Malger with a courtly bow. His eyes glittered as he looked at her.

‘Perhaps you would care to join us at the castle for breakfast,’ said Enide to the priest. ‘Sir Malger shot a stag earlier in the week, and …’

Whatever she had been about to say was forgotten as Pernel lurched towards Malger a second time. Adrian felt a surge of anger. The woman had just attended mass – surely she could at least wait until she was off hallowed ground before she engaged in unseemly behaviour with a man who was not her husband? But there was something odd about the way Pernel’s arms flopped as Malger struggled to hold her upright. Then she went rigid, and Malger dropped her altogether. She fell to the floor.

Adrian’s parishioners clustered around, their crop tending forgotten. Pernel began to writhe and convulse, red-flecked froth flying from her mouth as Adrian fought to hold her still.

‘Fetch Master Francis the physician,’ he ordered Tom Ingram. Ingram made no attempt to move, but watched the scene with open-mouthed fascination.

‘I think it is too late for Master Francis,’ said Enide, kneeling in the wet grass next to the priest, trying to help him control the stricken woman. ‘Pray for her, Father, quickly! She is dying!’

‘She cannot be!’ cried Adrian, appalled. ‘This is just a simple seizure. It will pass. Tom! Fetch Master Francis, and hurry!’

But Enide was right, and long before the old physician came puffing up the hill to the church, Pernel’s frenzied struggles had ceased, and she lay limp and lifeless among the gravestones.

‘It was a falling sickness,’ proclaimed Francis, with pompous confidence. ‘I have never seen an attack of this nature that has not been fatal. I doubt she knew much about it once it had started.’

‘She looked scared to death to me,’ said Sir Godric, looking down at his dead daughter-in-law. ‘Do not try to tell me she did not know what was happening to her, Francis.’

The physician frowned petulantly, not pleased at being contradicted in front of the whole village. ‘Well, at least I can offer you one comforting thought: there are few in this parish who could benefit more from dying on consecrated ground than Lady Pernel.’

‘That is certainly true!’ muttered Godric. ‘The lovely Pernel certainly led my son Stephen a merry dance while she was his wife. He will be well rid of her!’

Enide cast him a withering look for his lack of tact. Oblivious, Godric strode away to shout for servants to take Pernel’s body back to the castle. The others stood in an uncertain circle around the body, unsettled by the sudden appearance of Death among them.

‘The physician is right,’ said Adrian in a low voice to Enide. ‘Lady Pernel did not exactly lead a blameless life, and she may well benefit from breathing her last on sacred ground.’

‘Really, Father!’ exclaimed Sir Olivier, overhearing. ‘You slander my sister-in-law’s good name with such assertions.

‘What good name?’ muttered Tom Ingram to the assembled villagers. ‘She was a devil! God took her because she had no right to set her wicked feet in His holy place.’

There were murmurs of agreement from the watching crowd. Sir Olivier spluttered with indignation, but Joan placed a restraining hand on his arm, and he said nothing more. Deciding not to wait for the servants to bring a bier, Malger lifted the body from the ground, and began to carry it to the castle. Enide, Olivier, and Joan followed in silence, and the villagers watched them go.

‘I would exorcise this graveyard, if I were you, Father,’ said Tom Ingram sagely. ‘The Devil has just entered it to snatch away his own!’