A Choir of Crows
(An Owen Archer mystery Book 12)
By Candace Robb
With the great and the good about to descend on York for the enthronement of Alexander Neville as the new archbishop, the city authorities are in a state of high alert. When two bodies are discovered in the grounds of York Minster, and a flaxen-haired youth with the voice of an angel is found locked in the chapter house, Owen Archer, captain of the city bailiffs, is summoned to investigate.
Tension deepens when an enigmatic figure from Owen’s past arrives in the city. Why has he returned from France after all these years - and what is his connection with the bodies in the minster yard and the fair singer?
Before Owen can make headway in the investigation, a third body is fished out of the river – and the captain finds himself with three mysterious deaths to solve before the all-powerful Neville family arrives in York.
A Raffle Winner and A Choir of Crows
For a fundraising fête for the Medieval Women’s Choir we raffle off the chance to be a character in the next Owen Archer novel… with the best outcome I could imagine. The winner is Marian “Molly” Seibert, our soloist and assistant choir director. Molly has studied and performed medieval music all her adult life, with an exquisite voice that fills a cathedral. We’re both so excited. She’s one of my favorite people I’m one of her favorite writers. I’ve already decided that Molly will be no minor character—I will build the book around her. Her name is even perfect for a medieval woman—Marian!
I ask her for parameters—is she okay with being the murderer? Sure! The victim? Sure! But one request: she once received permission to sing a short piece in the acoustically fabulous York Minster chapter house—could she do that in the book? I promise to make that happen, though I’m already scrambling for how on earth to do that. In the 14th century the chapter house was the meeting place for the minster officials and other cannons, not a public space. It will be a stretch to create a believable scene in which a woman was singing there. Unless, of course, I present it as an event so unexpected that it’s a red flag indicating Something Is Not Right.
And then I proceed to write without any hitches? Alas no, that’s just the beginning. Basing the central character on a friend I greatly admire turns out to be difficult. I keep fighting the plot with the argument—Molly would never do that. Again and again I discard scenes until at last I understand that I need to write down the aspects of Molly I will use for Marian and create a character based on the list, not literally on the original. She must become no longer my friend Molly, but Marian, a woman of the 14th century. Only then can she fully present herself to me and guide me in telling her tale.
Of course there’s much more to the writing of the book—the background regarding music in nunneries, the Neville family politics and hierarchy, the Percy family, Wherwell Abbey, logistics of the minster in that period of time, a clear idea of what a returning character has been doing for a decade, to name the most obvious. But Marian was the key.
They were housed in the undercroft beneath the huge kitchen, sharing the space with casks of wine against the walls and salted meats hanging above them. It had been made clear that should they think to sample the wares, they could forget the generous purse they had been promised. Carl took charge, warning that pilfering would not be tolerated. He was a large man skilled with a knife, and the others, though loudly letting him know the insult cut deep, withdrew to see to their costumes for the morrow. After all, they might well be content with the barrel of ale provided them. And the cold repast. There was no need for his bullying, they muttered amongst themselves.
Ambrose wondered at how little they knew themselves. After a few tankards of ale they would find the stores irresistible. Anyone would.
He chose a corner away from the others, removed the velvet hat, and set it aside with his elegant cloak, letting his long white hair flow free. Placing his crwth on his blankets, he dusted it, then drew out the wax tablet on which he had written the lyrics composed for the occasion. Just the words—the tune was in his head and his fingers. He read it through, then set it aside to tune his instrument.
“Might we rehearse?”
Ambrose thoughtlessly touched the youth’s chin, an affectionate gesture that he immediately regretted as Matthew pulled away.
“Forgive me. I was startled…”
Matthew shook his head. “I should have announced my presence.” Placing a small bench near the blanket, the youth sat down, signaling that no more need be said. Ambrose was trusted.
Blessed be. Sitting cross-legged on the blanket, Ambrose plucked out the primary tune on the crwth. Matthew attended, leaning in toward the sound, nodding, pale face radiant with excitement. Softly vocalizing the notes, then adding more, exploring elaborations, playing with the tune. This was not random play. Every note suited the mode in which Ambrose had composed the piece. Where had the youth learned modes? A religious house? Curious, he tried another tune, in another mode. Frowning, fair hair falling over the pale eyes, and then a smile, and an exploration of notes rising, falling, turning back on themselves—one note out of the new mode quickly corrected with a shake of the head. Ambrose had come to realize the youth’s secret, but was there more, this knowledge, the familiarity with French lyrics? He yearned to ask, but he must say nothing. A conversation might be overheard. Quietly he instructed Matthew in using elaborations only when they enhanced the lyrics. Ah, I see. A lift of the chin, a gesture. That gesture—how was anyone fooled? Yes, Matthew was meant to emphasize the feminine, yet what lad could do it so effortlessly when not performing?
Ambrose had noted an undercurrent amongst the players, a tension. Carl kept a sharp eye out for Matthew. Yes, the man knew. How long could he hold the illusion cast over his players? It was a wonder he’d managed thus far—for Matthew had clearly sung with them a while.
Out of the corner of his eye Ambrose noticed two of their fellows rising, ambling over toward them.
“Once through the song, Matthew,” he said. The lyrics were not as polished as Ambrose would like, but they would do. He counted on the wine flowing at tomorrow’s feast—perfection would be wasted on the mighty. All they wished for were celebrations of the family’s victories, their increasing power.
Matthew sang the tune with a few flourishes enhancing the piece. Perfect recall of the lyrics. Excellent.
“Well done.” Ambrose nodded to Matthew. “Enough for tonight. Now to sleep, and rest your voice.” He nodded to the pair who had come forward. “All our voices.”
“It is a pleasure to sing with you, Master,” said the youth.
“And with you.”
“Did you leave any ale for me?” Matthew asked the two idling nearby.
“Oh aye, and you’ve earned it, pretty lad,” said one. He nodded at Ambrose. “The minstrel’s taken a liking to you. Watch yourself, lad.” Though they were the danger, not Ambrose.
He shook his head as if he could not be bothered with such talk and fussed with his crwth, placing it in a soft case and setting it on his pack, then made as if to go out to relieve himself.
Once outside, seeing no one following, Ambrose doubled back, slipping into a doorway indicated by the kitchen wench who had a weakness for singers. Down the corridor to the curtained alcove, she had said. And there it was. He slipped within and pressed his ear to the boarded-up aperture.
“Ravenser? I do not think you will make much headway with him, Alexander. Thoresby’s nephew—he thought to succeed his uncle. He is not likely to befriend you.”
Ambrose did not recognize the voice. He bent down to a chink in the boards, but the speaker had his back to him. A dark, well-padded jacket embroidered in bright colors, the seams picked out with silver thread.
“Yes, I had heard. My secretary tells me that Ravenser is well thought of amongst the clergy in the city…” Such a nasal quality to the archbishop’s voice. No wonder he railed against his destiny. Was it not enough that his appearance lacked pleasing proportions and grace? He was cursed with beady eyes, a wide nose, and a tiny mouth in a broad, jowly face, his body thick and graceless. He moved with a ponderous, flat-footed gait. An impressive voice might have done much to mitigate such misfortune, especially paired with a composed delivery, as if all the world were his to rule. A good actor might create a powerful illusion. But Alexander Neville had no such talents.
“A word in the right ear…” The mystery man spoke in a soothing tone. Here was one who knew how to shape the air round him. “You know how it is done. Be at ease. We have not brought you so far only to abandon you.”
“Brought me?” A bleat that hurt Ambrose’s ears. What horror to have that amplified in the soaring spaces of York Minster. Pray God the man did not speak above a whisper in that sacred place. And might he never attempt to sing… “Do you insult me?”
A dramatic sigh. “I remind you that you are nothing without the support of the family, Alexander. Nothing.” The voice was cold. “Do not trip over your pride. Our purpose is to unite the North in protecting the realm against all that threatens.”
“You have made yourself plain. But do not forget, I have the ear of the Holy Father.”
“Mark me, he will soon test you, tug on your strings to see whether you dance to his measure. Remember to whom you owe your allegiance—your kin. And King Edward.”
“He is the Holy Father.”
“And he favors the French. Never forget that. Now. What has your secretary learned of the dean of York Minster?”
“Cardinal Grimaud regrets that he is unable to make the journey north in winter. But we met at Westminster. He seems indifferent. A proud, stubborn man …” A petulant sigh. “God save me from these overbearing clerics.”
A startled laugh that the man hardly bothered to mask with a cough. “And the sub-dean acting as dean in his absences? John of York, I believe.”
“Absences? I am not certain the cardinal has ever set foot in the city.”
“You grow tedious. The sub-dean? Dean John?”
A petulant scowl. “A simple mind, easily dominated. You grow tedious as well. I am more concerned about Jehannes, Archdeacon of York. He presents himself as a gentle, unworldly man. But I am warned that one does well not to underestimate him. He sounds a pious bore.”
“And the lay men of influence? This John Gisburne might be of use. Yet having met him—I would prefer a more palatable man in our confidence. He is the sort to make an enemy with each breath. And it appears he considers himself above the law. Someone needs to teach him his place. What did Prince Edward’s man Antony of Egypt think of him?”
“My secretary Leufrid found Antony inscrutable. He was courteous to Gisburne, no more, no less.”
“What of the late John Thoresby’s spy, the one-eyed Welshman?”
“Archer? He’s now captain of bailiffs for the city. And Prince Edward’s man in the city, his eyes and ears in the North, they say. He entertained Antony in his home. Geoffrey Chaucer as well.”
Owen Archer’s position with the prince was precisely why Ambrose had come north.
“I am aware Archer has the favor of the prince’s household. What do we know about him?”
“The city sought his protection. He’s said to be a clever bloodhound, still a fine archer—he was captain of archers for Henry Grosmont before the loss of an eye, then his spy. Grosmont educated him to the latter position before he died. By all accounts he’s Gisburne’s nemesis. At some point the merchant crossed Archer and all the city awaits the day Gisburne is made to pay, and pay dearly.”
“So Archer has enemies.”
“Other than Gisburne?” Ambrose wished he could see black jacket’s face, read the expression that lit up Alexander’s face. “Oh. Yes, I see.”
Ambrose settled himself to hear more. His distasteful interlude with the kitchen wench had been worth it.
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I’m Candace Robb, a writer/historian engaged in creating fiction about the late middle ages with a large cast of characters with whom I enjoy spending my days. Two series, the Owen Archer mysteries and the Kate Clifford mysteries, are set in late medieval York. The Margaret Kerr trilogy is set in early 14th century Scotland, at the beginning of the Wars of Independence. Two standalone novels (published under pseudonym Emma Campion) expand on the lives of two women in the court of King Edward III who have fascinated me ever since I first encountered them in history and fiction.
I am a dreamer. Writing, gardening, walking, dancing, reading, being with friends—there’s always a dreaming element.
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