Travel to Chaucer’s England in this gritty Medieval romance with a touch of fantasy.
In fourteenth century Britain, Dame Audrey cherishes her independence as the widow of a wealthy cloth merchant. But several of the wealthier traders covet her profitable business and she fears they will invoke the Abbot’s authority to compel her to marry a man of their choice. Her worst nightmare is suffering under a cruel husband like the hateful jeweler, Henry Goldsmith, who has threatened to curb her lively spirits.
Audrey joins a pilgrimage to Glastonbury to pray for guidance. On the homeward journey to Redding, she aids the dying victim of a brutal robbery. She wins the stranger’s blessing and a gold brooch with a green dragon. Back in her hometown, the faerie brooch attracts trouble from thieves of all ranks and the attentions of a handsome yeoman, Selwyn Drake. As her nightmare looms nearer, she grows desperate to preserve her freedom.
Can the magic brooch help Audrey evade the schemes to force her into wedlock or must she submit to a husband’s will?
Glastonbury Abbey, the thirteenth day of July
In the summer of my twenty-third year, I made a pilgrimage to Glastonbury in Somerset, thereby proving my piety and enlightening my mind. Our parish priest had often advised a visit to a holy shrine as penance for sinful thoughts, especially for a widow like me. Regardless of the state of my soul, a pilgrimage suited me since I delighted in traveling to new places. Both my business and private affairs benefited from the direction and timing of the trip from my house in Redding.
Our company of pilgrims mounted on good horses made the journey to Glastonbury in five days of easy riding in the clement weather of early July. Glastonbury Abbey is a popular destination as the burial site of legendary King Arthur and other notable kings and abbots. In a further claim for the pious, Joseph of Arimathea sailed from Jerusalem and founded the first church on this site. The monks are well prepared for visitors of all ranks. Elite lords and ladies are accommodated in the Abbot’s house, while the rest of us must be satisfied with the hostel.
When we reached the hostel in the middle of the afternoon, we were instructed to leave our horses in the stable yard and walk along the path to the Abbey gates. Cousin Margaret and I dismounted from our weary mares. My yeoman, John Holt, took charge of our three horses and my wolfhound. Margaret and I linked arms in the correct manner for two women unaccompanied by a male relative and joined our fellow pilgrims. We made a mismatched pair of widows. Margaret is short, plump and as meek as a mouse, whereas I am taller than most men and unafraid to speak my mind. My kirtle is deep blue, while she wears nothing brighter than tawny brown. Although she dislikes long journeys, my cousin had been my faithful traveling companion since my husband’s decease.
As we left the stable yard, the inner stone walls of the abbey came into sight. The paved road led straight to big iron gates flanked by armed guards. We gazed up at the splendid cathedral with its towers jutting into the blue sky. Sunlight glinted on the glazed windows.
Margaret squeezed my arm and breathed, “What a wonderful tribute to the good Lord Jesu.”
My praise was more temperate. “It is an imposing building, and I believe the interior is superb.”
We walked toward the cathedral. Beggars in grimy russet tunics crowded on both sides of the path, stretching out their hands and pleading for alms. A scant three paces ahead of us, two lads ran into the road and tugged at the sleeves of an elderly merchant. He shook them off and bawled for help. The Abbot’s men-at-arms unsheathed their swords and shoved the boys away. No other paupers dared approach us.
The guards stood aside to let our line of pilgrims enter. Inside the tall gates, we were met by a young monk in the black robes of the Benedictines, our guide to the treasures. He bowed and accepted our donations as fees to enter the sacred places.
His voice rang with fervent devotion, “Gentlemen and ladies, welcome to our great church. Please speak softly or keep silent in reverence for God’s house.” He led us across the paved yard to the arched porch of the cathedral.
We stepped into the cool interior space, and halted in the side aisle of the great nave. The hushed silence was broken only by the shuffle of footsteps and the gasps of awe. Rows of slender columns reached up to the high vaulted ceiling. Bright beams of color poured through the beautiful rose window above the high altar.
Margaret was much impressed with the magnificent nave. Her mouth gaped open as her gaze swung from the ornate altar to the arched ceiling. She was not alone in her amazement.
After a short interval, our guide directed us away from the main altar to the west end of the cathedral. We tiptoed into the Lady Chapel to view its collection of sacred relics.
Inside the chapel, Margaret halted before the glittering display of marvels arranged in the chancel. She breathed a sigh of wonder. Making the sign of the cross, she dropped onto her knees in front of the sacred objects. I stood behind her, estimating the worth of the abundant treasures. The interior of the chapel was so full of gold you could scarce distinguish the relics. My frugal heart rebelled at such abundance of wealth when beggars lined the road to the Abbey gates. In my opinion, our abbey in Redding housed as fine a selection of holy objects amid less ostentation.
Our black-robed guide was stationed at one side of the small chapel. Noticing the line of penitents waiting outside, I did not expect he would allow us to linger by the hallowed treasures. My unvoiced prediction was correct. Before Margaret had finished her fervent prayers, the monk interrupted and requested we return to the nave.
After we were expelled from the altar of the Lady Chapel, Margaret and I wandered toward the east end of the main church. The tomb of King Arthur held a prominent place before the high altar. Cloths embroidered in red and gold thread draped over the tomb. Red and gold also decorated the wall behind the high altar and painted banners hung from the ceiling beams. The Abbey church in Redding could also boast of a king’s tomb, although Henry the first is less renowned and less romantic than King Arthur.
We strolled along the aisle to a pew near the altar and knelt on the cushions to pray. In my usual devotions, I offered prayers first for my deceased husband and two children, and then the living members of my family, especially my dear mother and sister. I paused for a moment to inhale the tranquility of the great nave. A shaft of sunlight struck across the pews in front of me, and high in the vaulted ceiling, a thrush trilled in joy. The golden sunbeam and cheerful birdsong seemed a sign of Christ’s mercy, a promise of hope.
I bent over my clasped hands and begged for guidance on my private troubles. For two and a half years, I had enjoyed the happy independence of a widow. But recently, I had come under increased pressure to take another husband. At Sunday Mass, Father Damon had stared straight at me when he preached on woman’s inborn sin. He ranted on her obligation to submit to a man’s authority. He adjured all women to bow to a husband or else enter a nunnery as the bride of Christ. Nor did the merchants of Redding favor a widow with a cloth shop. They envied my successful trade and coveted my shop and skilled weavers. At the midsummer festivities, Mayor Kent had joked he wished to see me wed before his term of office ended. I took his words as a threat as much as a jest. Nobody had spoken to me about any particular man. Yet, I was not free. The Mayor, the Abbot or Sheriff might bid me to wed a man of their choosing. If I refused, my sole option was the nunnery. Of the two, I preferred the idea of marrying again if I could find a good, kind man and preferably one who was younger than my first husband.
My husband had been kind. He had treated me well, though I knew many men were cruel to their wives. He never beat me and liked to give me fine gowns, books and jewelry. He had rejoiced in the births of our children and sorrowed at their loss. Yet, he was thirty years older than I, and grew fat and wrinkled during the seven years of our marriage. I performed my nightly duties without enjoying his touch.
My prayers were more akin to a meditation on my options, when in reality I might have none. Thus, I asked a blessing of St Mary, that I might have a choice in my future. Satisfied with my prayers, I glanced at Margaret. She must have been waiting for me to finish. She looked up quickly and gave a slight nod. I rose and we walked together down the central aisle to the exit.
Once we left the abbey, we had to endure the supplications of the beggars again. They pushed into the paved path, crying in hoarse voices for pennies.
Margaret gripped my arm and pressed close to my side, frightened by the crush of unwashed paupers. Desirous of a barrier against purse snatchers, I angled our steps to position us between a stout yeoman and a brown-robed friar. The yeoman gave me a sympathetic nod and patted the hilt of his sword.
I pitied the poor creatures, men, woman and children of all ages. Many of the beggars were crippled, missing one or more limbs. Some were covered in sores, and all wore dirty clothes. They had no livelihood or master to care for their needs. Did the abbey monks not offer food and housing to the poor at their gates? In my humble opinion, the monastery ought to use a portion of its immense wealth to succor the poor. We had paid well to visit the shrine and the Abbot must also receive tithes from the local households.
I had often given alms to the poor, yet I was cautious in my donations, especially so near to the shrine of Glastonbury. Not all beggars were truly destitute. Some of the most vocal supplicants might be greedy fakers, merely scoundrels hoping to benefit from the piety of the pilgrims.
As our party approached the hostel where we lodged, I caught sight of an old woman holding the hand of a small child. They stood apart from the majority of paupers. Their kirtles were neat, although frayed at the hems. The woman’s wrinkled face had a resigned expression. Her blind eyes stared straight ahead and she leaned on a stick. The child was a fair-haired girl of perhaps five years of age, the same age as my dear Ellen when the Lord took her from me. A pang of sorrow pierced my heart and I resolved to give this woman a pair of silver coins.
Beckoning to the blind woman, I said, “Old mother, come closer.”
She did not react, but the child fixed a forlorn gaze on me and tugged at the woman’s hand. With the child’s encouragement, the woman hobbled forward, tapping the ground with her cane at each step.
I held out my hand with two silver pennies on my palm.
Releasing her grip on the child’s small hand, the old woman touched my wrist lightly and felt her way to the coins. She curled her fingers around the gift, and bent in an awkward curtsy.
Her voice cracked with sincerity, “Good and gracious lady, I give thanks for your kindness. May the sweet Lord Jesu watch over your travels, may you bear healthy children, and may gentle Lady Bridda grant your dearest wish.”
A shiver of excitement raced along my spine at this strange mix of blessings, including the invocation of the unfamiliar Lady Bridda in conjunction with Christ’s holy name. The weight of their potency washed over me like a fragrant shower of rose petals. Bowing to the old woman, I thanked her from the depths of my heart.
A new group of pilgrims passed us on their way to the Abbey gates. The other beggars began to shuffle closer, hoping their pleas would reach fresh ears and generous hearts.
Nudging my elbow, Margaret urged in a shaky whisper, “Audrey, let’s walk on. We can’t give alms to everyone.” She glanced nervously at the crowd of paupers.
“No. Just this one destitute woman.” As we turned away, I sighed, “The girl reminded me of Ellen.”
“Her hair is the same flaxen color,” Margaret agreed.
Walking faster, we evaded the incoming beggars and caught up with the rest of our company. When I glanced backward, the blind woman and girl were hidden behind the keener supplicants.
I asked my cousin, “Did you ever hear of Lady Bridda?”
Still clutching my elbow for protection, Margaret blinked at me and shook her head. “Mayhap she is a local saint favored by the blind woman.”
Giving a mental shrug, I said, “Doubtless she’s a Welsh saint, judging by our location near the West Marches.”
With the hostel in sight, my timid cousin felt safer. She smiled at me, asking, “Do you ever wish for another child?”
Tears filled my eyes, threatening to trickle down my cheeks. Surreptitiously, I wiped my knuckles over the corners of my eyes. “Oh Margaret,” I said, “children are both joy and sorrow in my experience. If I had another child, I would dread losing them.”
“You’ll need a new husband first. Have you thought of making a second marriage?”
Amused by her down-to-earth question, I assured her, “I’m happy with my life as a widow.” In truth, I treasured my independence and had no desire to submit to a husband’s will. My cousin did not appreciate my dilemma. She seemed as contented with her subservient role in my household as she’d been with her husband. “It isn’t easy to find a good husband,” I said. “Do you imagine a handsome knight would see me at the fair, slip a ring on my finger, and carry me away to his castle?”
“Nay. You wouldn’t be so improper. Most likely, you’d scold him for impudence and send him running.” A hint of disapproval entered her voice as she remarked, “Though, you’re certainly fond of traveling.”
“But, Margaret,” I parried, “you haven’t remarried.”
“I’m older, not as comely and prosperous as you. Who would wish to wed me?”
“You are one of my best weavers, and a valuable assistant in the shop. Why, you’re still young enough to bear children.”
Margaret smiled at my compliments. “Very well, Audrey. When you are married, I’ll consider my prospects.”
Her complaisant words made me wonder if she had any suitors. I knew of none, although she often paid visits to our trading partners and friends in town. Also, she had relatives in the village where she grew up. Did she have an old beau, a patient man, waiting for her to leave my household?
We entered the courtyard of the hostel. John Holt stood by the stables holding the collar of my wolfhound. Rufus, a fine big dog with distinctive fox-red fur, is my companion and protector. But he is not welcomed in churches. He demonstrated the reason when I signaled for John to release him. Rufus bounded to me, almost knocking over the stable lad crossing the yard. My dog has learned not to leap at me, but sometimes he forgets his manners with other people.
John assured me our horses were in good hands with the hostler. I trust John’s judgment. He and his wife have served in my household ever since my marriage. I gave him some coins and gave him leave to visit the cathedral and admire the relics. He would spend the night in the stable with our horses, while Margaret and I had a bed in a separate room of the hostel. As extra security against intruders, I allowed my wolfhound to sleep beside our bed.
As we entered the hostel, I wondered if my cousin had the best solution to my dilemma. In the two and a half years since I had lost my husband, I had scarcely spent any time pondering remarriage. Instead, I focused on learning the cloth trade, fighting to appease Hubert’s contacts and retain his best employees. Marriage to the right man, a kind and loving man, would give me protection from unwanted suitors. I might retain a measure of freedom, depending on his wishes. A noble match was out of my reach. My cloth shop would not tempt a knight with a good estate, only a younger son without prospects would deign to marry a merchant’s widow. I had no desire to bestow my hand and property upon a penniless man.
I cast my mind over the men of my rank in Redding, unmarried merchants and craftsmen. Some disparaged my successes and I despised them for such shabby treatment. Others were courteous or even supported me in guild affairs. Yet, none of them stirred an iota of interest in my wayward heart. If I were serious, I would have to look further afield for a husband.
Releases on August 27th.