Friday 28 June 2024

Politics and treachery threaten to end Nero’s reign before it begins, forcing him to turn to unexpected sources for friendship and help.

Forgiving Nero 
By Mary Ann Bernal

Publication Date: 14th February 2021
Publisher: Independently Published
Page Length: 306 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Rome. The jewel of the civilized world is no longer what it was. Strength has failed the Senate. Her legions are in disarray, and the Empire has fallen into Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus Nero’s hands. His reign begins under a cloud of scrutiny, for he is the depraved Emperor Caligula’s nephew. Nero is determined to overcome that stigma and carve a name of his own. One worthy of Rome’s illustrious history.

Politics and treachery threaten to end Nero’s reign before it begins, forcing him to turn to unexpected sources for friendship and help. Many of the Praetorian Guard have watched over Nero since he was a small child, and it is in Traian that the young Emperor places his trust, despite the inherent threat of reducing his mother’s influence. Traian is the father he never had and the one man who does not judge him.

When Traian secretly marries the hostage Vena, it sets in motion a collision of values as Traian comes to odds with his former charge. The whirlwind that follows will shake the very foundations of the greatest Empire the world has ever known, and survival is far from guaranteed.

Pick up your copy of
Forgiving Nero

Mary Ann Bernal

Mary Ann Bernal attended Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, NY, where she received a degree in Business Administration. Her literary aspirations were ultimately realized when the first book of The Briton and the Dane novels was published in 2009. In addition to writing historical fiction, Mary Ann has also authored a collection of contemporary short stories in the Scribbler Tales series and a science fiction/fantasy novel entitled Planetary Wars Rise of an Empire. Her recent work includes Crusader’s Path, a redemption story set against the backdrop of the First Crusade, Forgiving Nero, a novel of Ancient Rome, and AnaRose and the Templar’s Quest, a historical mystery adventure.

Since Operation Desert Storm, Mary Ann has been a passionate supporter of the United States military, having been involved with letter-writing campaigns and other support programs. She appeared on The Morning Blend television show hosted by KMTV, the CBS television affiliate in Omaha, and was interviewed by the Omaha World-Herald for her volunteer work. She has been a featured author on various reader blogs and promotional sites.

Mary Ann currently resides in Elkhorn, Nebraska.

Connect with Mary Ann:

Thursday 27 June 2024

Book Review — Murder on West Main: A South Shore Mystery by I. M. Foster

Murder on West Main: A South Shore Mystery
By I. M. Foster

Publication Date: 20th December 2023
Publisher: Inez M. Foster
Page Length: 385 Pages
Genre: Historical Mysteries

When Colin Brissedon arrives at work one summer morning to find his new boss murdered, all eyes turn to him. After all, the man had threatened to fire him just a few days before, and his colleagues are more than happy to tell the tale. Kathleen admits her brother is no angel, but she can’t believe he would sink this low. Fortunately for them, neither does Daniel O’Halleran, the village’s new coroner’s assistant. Of course, he needs more than his gut feeling to prove it.

But that’s not going to be an easy task, considering the victim does not appear to have been held in high regard. In fact, Daniel is hard-pressed to find anyone who did like him, though there are more than a few who had reason to wish the man dead. To make matters worse, Kathleen is intent on conducting her own investigation despite his wishes, and he fears the consequences could be deadly.

And yet, with the pieces of the puzzle laid before him, he can’t shake the feeling that something is missing, an integral clue that will tie everything else together. Will Daniel be able to find the elusive detail and discover the reason behind the gruesome murder of the prominent attorney? Or will the guilty party live to kill again?

There are two types of men - those who are liked, and those who are not. Ezekiel Brice could not have cared less about how other people perceived him. But now he was dead, murdered. The only evidence linking him to his killer is a handkerchief with the initials C.B. embroidered onto it, which was discovered down Brice’s throat.

Colin Brissedon was aware that his excessive drinking was starting to impact his job performance. Just a few days ago, he had a heated argument with his boss, Brice, about his appearance and work efficiency. Determined to cut back on the drink and get his life in order, Colin arrives at work a little earlier than normal, to try and prove to his boss that he was putting in the effort – he hadn’t expected to find his boss dead. Nor was he expecting to become the prime suspect in a murder investigation. Kathleen, his sister, firmly believes in his innocence and is determined to prove it with the assistance of Doctor Daniel O’Halleran.

Murder on West Main: A South Shore Mystery by I. M. Foster is a thrilling novel that will keep the reader guessing who the murderer is right up until the end.

To Daniel, it seems to be more productive to try and figure out who isn’t guilty, rather than who might be. Foster has cleverly created a novel where there are multiple suspects – Colin is not the only one whose initials are C.B. In his pursuit of the killer, Daniel employs a meticulous process of elimination. By determining the time of death, he can try to establish alibis for the suspects, yet every step he takes seems to bring forth additional obstacles. Certain individuals lack alibis but appear outwardly innocent, while others with strong motives for murdering Brice have alibis. The compelling mystery woven into the narrative has been cleverly crafted. The captivating suspense technique employed by Foster ensures that the reader is constantly guessing alongside Daniel.

Kathleen, although technically not allowed to do so, is determined to prove herself useful and refuses to allow Daniel to dictate what she is and is not allowed to do. She is unwavering in her mission to prove her brother’s innocence, while simultaneously striving to gain Daniel’s trust in her investigative abilities. Due to her drive and intellect, Kathleen is in a crucial position to greatly assist with Daniel’s investigation. Kathleen’s resolute commitment played a pivotal role in advancing the plot of this tale. Her steadfastness adds to her overall charm and likeability. However, Daniel worries about her safety. Even with Kathleen’s unwavering support, Daniel remains mindful of the murderer’s presence and the potential for further violence and he wants to protect Kathleen at all costs.

Although the main emphasis of this book is on the murder and the proceeding investigation, there is an underlying romantic subplot between two of the protagonists. Daniel and Kathleen share a subtle, simmering connection that adds a layer of romance to the murder investigation, even though the circumstances are not conducive to a relationship. Kathleen is still reeling from major life changes, and Daniel has long-kept secrets that he is not sure he is quite ready to share yet. The depiction of Daniel and Kathleen’s relationship was not only beautiful, but also credible. It certainly brought a gentler element to the narrative.

Trying to uncover the identity of the killer becomes nearly impossible as Daniel and Kathleen follow conflicting clues, and the truth remains hidden until Ms. Foster deems it appropriate to disclose. By attempting to solve the mystery as you read, the book becomes an exhilarating race against time, compelling you to read faster and uncover more clues to discover what truly occurred. Once you start reading this novel, it becomes nearly impossible to put down. When you do step away from it, you are still thinking about it, pondering over the facts and the suspects, attempting to solve the mystery yourself until you can pick it back up and begin reading again. 

It can be a little difficult at the beginning to keep track of all the different people, especially when they all share the same initials. As the story progresses, the reader becomes better acquainted with the characters and it becomes easier to differentiate between them.

Through meticulous attention to historical detail, Foster brings the setting of her book to life, creating an entertaining historical thriller/mystery. The dedication put into this novel’s research deserves recognition. Foster has truly breathed life into this era, making it the ideal backdrop for her story.

There is no doubt that Murder on West Main: A South Shore Mystery by I. M. Foster is a fabulously captivating novel. The story is fast-paced and full of energy, keeping the reader engaged from start to finish. This novel can be read independently, but its storyline will undoubtedly compel you to continue with the rest of the series. I highly recommend this novel.

Pick up your copy of
Murder on West Main

I. M. Foster 

I. M. Foster is the pen name author Inez Foster uses to write her South Shore Mystery series, set on Edwardian Long Island. Inez also writes historical romances under the pseudonym Andrea Matthews, and has so far published two series in that genre: the Thunder on the Moor series, a time-travel romance set on the 16th century Anglo-Scottish Borders, and the Cross of Ciaran series, which follows the adventures of a fifth century Celt who finds himself in love with a twentieth century archaeologist. 

Inez is a historian and librarian, who love to read and write and search around for her roots, genealogically speaking. She has a BA in History and an MLS in Library Science and enjoys the research almost as much as she does writing the story. In fact, many of her ideas come to her while doing casual research or digging into her family history. Inez is a member of the Long Island Romance Writers, and the Historical Novel Society.

You can keep track of her upcoming releases and tidbits about her books on the following sites:

Connect with I. M. Foster:

Wednesday 26 June 2024

When Pope Julius II commissions Raphael to paint several frescos in the reception rooms of the Vatican Palace, Teodoro follows his master to Rome and discovers firsthand the admiration and rivalry between Raphael and two other reigning artists: Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.


Trouble in Assisi 
By Heidi Eljarbo

Publication Date: 28th May 2024
Publisher: Independently Published
Pages: 225 Pages
Genre: Historical Mystery / Dual Timeline Mystery

Assisi, 1973.

On art historian Fabiola Bennett’s first day in Assisi, a local gentleman takes her aside to ask for advice about a painting that has wondrously appeared in the basilica’s bell tower. So much for enjoying relaxing days filled with dining on pasta and gelato.

Soon, Fabiola and her besties, Pippa and Cary, are thrown into a shrouded mystery and caught up in a whirlwind of intrigue, theft, lies, and attempted murder, all of which overshadows the postcard-like charm of the small, historic town.

Rome, 1511.

Life is going well for Teodoro Nicoletti. Since he was a young man in Florence, he has worked and learned alongside the most-favored artist Raphael.

When Pope Julius II commissions Raphael to paint several frescos in the reception rooms of the Vatican Palace, Teodoro follows his master to Rome and discovers firsthand the admiration and rivalry between Raphael and two other reigning artists: Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

But the prickliest thorn in Teodoro’s side is his beloved Elisabetta’s father. The old man is determined to keep his youngest daughter from becoming Teodoro’s wife.

Pick up your copy of
Trouble in Assisi 

Heidi Eljarbo

Heidi Eljarbo grew up in a home full of books, artwork, and happy creativity. She is the author of historical novels filled with courage, hope, mystery, adventure, and sweet romance during challenging times. She’s been named a master of dual timelines and often writes about strong-willed women of past centuries.

After living in Canada, six US states, Japan, Switzerland, and Austria, Heidi now calls Norway home. She lives with her husband on a charming island and enjoys walking in any kind of weather, hugging her grandchildren, and has a passion for art and history.

Her family’s chosen retreat is a mountain cabin, where they hike in the summer and ski the vast white terrain during winter.

Heidi’s favorites are her family, God's beautiful nature, and the word whimsical.

Connect with Heidi:

#HistoricalMystery #ArtMystery #DualTimeline #BlogTour #TheCoffeePotBookClub

Tuesday 25 June 2024

Book Review - The Heron Legacy by Leona Francombe

The Heron Legacy
By Leona Francombe

Publication Date: 14th June 2024
Publisher: Merle Books Brussels
Page Length: 399 Pages
Genre: Suspense / Historical

How far can you reach into the past?

When Charles Fontaine returns to Europe to sell his family’s ancestral domain in the Ardennes Forest, he finds that a twelfth-century legend still haunts the property. Clues lead him to a parchment relating the curious tale of a village seeress, whose music enchanted a nobleman with shadowy ties to the present-day Fontaine family. With the help of a famous medievalist and enigmatic woman from his youth, Charles draws ever closer to the truth of this tale and its stunning historical revelation...and to his own buried past. The Heron Legacy is a novel of modern suspense through which history roams freely, its breath still warm.

An enthralling historical what-if from the author of The Universe in 3/4 Time: A Novel of Old Europe, shortlisted for the 2023 Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize.


Charles Frontaine is a successful lawyer in his father’s firm. He gives off the impression of having it all. However, beneath the surface lies a man with a single desire: to return to his ancestral homelands and to once again explore the estate with his uncle and discover the secrets of his ancestors.

Unfortunately, things are not as simple as they seem. Before Charles knows it, he uncovers the truth about his father’s scheme. A scheme that would see the estate sold for a price Charles could never afford. If he is to save the estate he must stay one step ahead of his father, but that is easier said than done.

Lovers of thrillers/mysteries with a historical and paranormal twist will be thrilled by Francombe’s book, which masterfully weaves together a poetic narrative and a successfully ambitious plot. The Heron Legacy by Leona Francombe is not only highly entertaining but also impossible to set aside. Another page turned into another chapter. This is the kind of book that makes a reader forgo sleep to finish. 

The reader’s first encounter with Charles Frontaine occurs when he is only 17 years old. His father, the rather formidable and uncompromising, Hugues Fontaine, is determined to leave Belgium and start a new life in America. But going to America is the last thing that Charles wants to do. He would rather stay where he was, study history and eventually become a historian like his uncle, Theodore. Charles’ true home is in his ancestral lands in the Ardennes, which includes Villa Antioch, the ruins of Blancheron Castle, the river Semois, and not forgetting the seemingly enchanted forest. Despite this, he has no alternative but to go with his father to America. Once in America, his father is determined to mould him into a younger model of himself, and without his Uncle Theodore’s support, Charles becomes what his father wants him to be. However, beneath the fa├žade of a prosperous lawyer lies a man who yearns to return home and delve into the history of his forefathers and the enigma of the white heron. I thought Charles' portrayal was fabulous drawn. In his youth he is somewhat idealistic and a dreamer to some extent, finding himself drawn into the world of his ancestors through his imagination. He desires to uncover the truth behind the local legends and he feels a deep connection to his ancestral lands, especially the river and the legendary tale of the seeress, Arda. As he approaches middle age, he begins to come into his own and finally takes control of his own life. Charles is an unlikely hero, but to stand up to his father took a tremendous amount of courage, even when he was a man grown. I thought Charles' character came across with a strong sense of realism and he was a character that I thoroughly enjoyed reading about. 

Another character that I adored was Uncle Theodore. He is an irresistible source of inspiration, especially when it comes to his love for history and, in particular, the First Crusade. Considering Charles’ deep respect for his uncle and his ardent interest in history, it is logical for him to opt for living with him rather than his father; however, he has to go to America with his father, despite his fervent desire to remain behind. Without his uncle’s influence, Charles soon falls into step with his father’s wishes. Theodore’s portrayal was beautifully depicted; he’s not your typical textbook teacher, but he truly brings history to life as he seemingly lives and breathes it.

Despite being set in the present day, Francombe’s novel effectively resurrects the 11th century and offers readers a realistic depiction of the lives of the early Crusaders. Francombe skilfully illustrates the fervent response of European Christians to Pope Urban II’s call for a crusade to reclaim the Holy Lands from the Muslims, with the arrogant assumption that “Deus vult,” God wills it. With meticulous attention to historical accuracy, Francombe has brought the era to life by utilizing original documents, local legends, the protagonist’s vivid imagination, and a hint of the supernatural. Her portrayal of Godfrey of Bouillon was nothing short of exceptional.

Francombe skillfully engages her readers in the story by appealing to all the senses, such as the scent of Aunt Ida’s perfume, reminiscent of orange blossoms. The warm touch of a stone whose age is infinite. The sun’s warmth and the cool breeze. The squeaky noise of an ancient sofa is accompanied by the scent of aged parchment and books. This approach really brought this story to life and was an absolute treat to read.

I found the supernatural elements of this book particularly captivating. There is a distinct otherworldly quality to the writing that adds to the story’s mystique. As Charles delves deeper into the history and the legends, he gradually comprehends that his uncle was correct all along - history is not as far away as one might believe - it is within touching distance.

Leona Francombe’s book, The Heron Legacy, is brilliantly tantalizing, turning each page into a voyage of discovery. It explores not only the documented history but also the journey of Charles as he learns to fight for his true desires and the life he wants to live. For those who appreciate an exhilarating thriller with a dose of history, this book is a must-read. I’m eagerly anticipating reading more works from this exceptionally talented author.

Pick up your copy
The Heron Legacy

Leona Francombe

Author, pianist and composer Leona Francombe is of English and Czech heritage and grew up in the United States. Her novels include: "The Heron Legacy" (Merle Books Brussels, 2024); "The Universe in 3/4 Time: A Novel of Old Europe" (Merle Books Brussels, 2021, shortlisted for the Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize); "The Sage of Waterloo" (W.W. Norton, 2015); "Madame Ernestine und die Entdeckung der Liebe" (Random House Germany, 2014). She is also the author of many short stories and essays. Her work is inspired by, among other things: European history and atmosphere, music, ancient mysteries, Nature mysticism, and the otherworldly. "The Heron Legacy" came to life after the unexpected discovery of a medieval ruin in a remote part of the Ardennes forest. A piano abandoned on a Brussels street one winter's night was the catalyst for "The Universe in 3/4 Time". Leona lives with her family in Belgium.

Connect with Leona:

Monday 24 June 2024

A docile wife is what he wants. A husband is the last thing she needs. Can a quest for a killer teach them that they are both wrong?


A Gentleman’s Promise
(Gentlemen Book 1)
By Penny Hampson

Publication Date: 11th March 2021
Publisher: PP&M Publishing; 2nd edition
Page Length: 322 Pages
Genre: Regency / Historical Romance

A docile wife is what he wants. A husband is the last thing she needs. Can a quest for a killer teach them that they are both wrong?

Emma Smythe and her brother arrive at Easterby Hall to discover that a handsome stranger has laid claim to their ancestral home and the family title. Have her relatives been murdered, and is her brother next? Determined to find the answers, she has no option but to trust the gentleman who insists that he will help. But danger appears in many guises, and for a woman intent on remaining single, her intriguing protector may prove the biggest threat of all. 

The attempts on Richard Lacey’s life begin when he inherits a title and a rundown estate. A coincidence? He’s not so sure. Problems multiply with the unexpected arrival of Jamie and Emma Smythe. Long thought dead, they too are potential targets. Richard thinks he wants a docile, obedient wife, but will the task of keeping headstrong Emma safe from danger change his mind?

Embroiled in a sinister mystery, can Richard and Emma work together to catch a killer? And will this dangerous quest teach them that what they both wish to avoid is exactly what they need?

Pick up your copy of 
A Gentleman’s Promise

Penny Hampson

Writing History, Mystery, and Romance.

Penny Hampson writes mysteries and because she has a passion for history you’ll find her stories also reflect that. A Gentleman’s Promise, a traditional Regency romance, was Penny’s debut novel and the first of her Gentlemen Series. Penny also enjoys writing contemporary mysteries with a hint of the paranormal, because where do ghosts come from but the past? The Unquiet Spirit, a spooky mystery/romance set in Cornwall, was a contender for the Joan Hessayon Award 2021.

Connect with Penny:

Friday 21 June 2024

A reluctant daughter. A dutiful wife. A mystery of the ages.

Love Lost in Time
By Cathie Dunn

Publication Date: 7th November 2019
Publisher: Ocelot Press
Page Length: 274 Pages
Genre: Duel Time-Line / Historical Mystery / Romance

A reluctant daughter. A dutiful wife. A mystery of the ages.

Languedoc, France, 2018

Historian Madeleine Winters would rather research her next project than rehash the strained relationship she had with her late mother. However, to claim her inheritance, she reluctantly agrees to stay the one year required in her late mother’s French home and begins renovations. But when she’s haunted by a female voice inside the house and tremors emanating from beneath her kitchen floorboards, she’s shocked to discover ancient human bones.

The Mediterranean coast, AD 777

Seventeen-year-old Nanthild is wise enough to know her place. Hiding her Pagan wisdom and dutifully accepting her political marriage, she’s surprised when she falls for her Christian husband, the Count of Carcassonne. But she struggles to keep her forbidden religious beliefs and her healing skills secret while her spouse goes off to fight in a terrible, bloody war.

As Maddie settles into her rustic village life, she becomes obsessed with unraveling the mysterious history buried in her new home. And when Nanthild is caught in the snare of an envious man, she’s terrified she’ll never embrace her beloved again.

Can two women torn apart by centuries help each other finally find peace?

Love Lost in Time is a vivid standalone historical fiction novel for fans of epoch-spanning enigmas. If you like dark mysteries, romantic connections, and hints of the paranormal, then you’ll adore Cathie Dunn’s tale of redemption and self-discovery. 

Only 0.99 on #Kindle for a Limited Time
Pick up your copy of
Love Lost in Time

Cathie Dunn

Cathie is an Amazon-bestselling author of historical fiction, dual-timeline, mystery, and romance. She loves to infuse her stories with a strong sense of place and time, combined with a dark secret or mystery – and a touch of romance. Often, you can find her deep down the rabbit hole of historical research…
In addition, she is also a historical fiction book promoter with The Coffee Pot Book Club, a novel-writing tutor, and a keen reviewer on her blog, Ruins & Reading.
After having lived in Scotland for almost two decades, Cathie is now enjoying the sunshine in the south of France with her husband, and her rescued pets, Ellie Dog & Charlie Cat. 

She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, the Richard III Society, the Alliance of Independent Authors, and the Romantic Novelists’ Association.

Connect with Cathie: 

Thursday 20 June 2024

Dual timeline story set in the 1960's and the years 1472-1502, following the finding of Anne Mowbray's coffin, through the story of her brief life, burial and first reburial as witnessed by her mother, Elizabeth Talbot, to her final reinterment in Westminster Abbey.


Princess in the Police Station: A Tale of Little Anne Mowbray
(Medieval Babes: Tales of Little-Known Ladies Book 12)
By J.P. Reedman

Publication Date: 24th May 2024
Publisher: Independently Published
Page Length: 161 Pages
Genre: Dual Timeline / Historical Fiction / Biographical Fiction

1964, Workmen digging on a bombsite in London uncover a hidden vault containing a lead coffin. The coffin is almost reburied in a mass grave in a local churchyard, but an old retired policeman, examining the sarcophagus in the police station where the find has been taken, notices a plaque attached to the leaden lid. What he reads, stuns him--this is not a an unknown medieval nun or noblewoman.
The coffin's occupant is a child--a Princess, Anne Mowbray, wife of Richard of Shrewsbury, one of the infamous Princes in the Tower, who disappeared in 1483...

1470's. Elizabeth is the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. King Edward IV has expressed a wish that the widow's only child, Anne, might marry his younger son, Richard. Unwillingly, she agrees, even though the marriage contract will cause her to lose her dower lands, and if Anne should die young, all the Norfolk lands would go to her young husband instead of blood relatives. But she dares not deny the King, for Elizabeth is the sister of Eleanor Talbot...the King's secret wife from years before. If the King suspects she knows the truth of his relationship with Eleanor, all she loves is in danger, for her knowledge could threaten his throne...

So at just five years old, Anne is married to an even younger Prince Richard in a grand ceremony, but Elizabeth fears for her child's future in Edward's decadent court.
And soon the thing she fears most comes to pass...

Dual timeline story set in the 1960's and the years 1472-1502, following the finding of Anne Mowbray's coffin, through the story of her brief life, burial and first reburial as witnessed by her mother, Elizabeth Talbot, to her final reinterment in Westminster Abbey.

Pick up your copy of 
Princess in the Police Station

J.P. Reedman

J.P. Reedman was born in Canada but has lived in the U.K. for nearly 30 years. 

Interests include folklore & anthropology, prehistoric archaeology (neolithic/bronze age Europe; ritual,burial & material culture), as well as The Wars of the Roses and the rest of the medieval era.

Connect with J.P. Reedman:

Wednesday 19 June 2024

How do you recover from the havoc wrought by history's cruellest plague?

Fortune's Wheel
(The Meonbridge Chronicles, Book 1)
By Carolyn Hughes  

Audio Release Date: 22nd April 2024
NarratorAlex Lee
Listening Length: 11 hours and 54 minutes

How do you recover from the havoc wrought by history's cruellest plague?

It's June 1349. In Meonbridge, a Hampshire manor, many have lost their lives to the Black Death, among them Alice atte Wode’s beloved husband and Eleanor Titherige’s widowed father. Even the family of the manor’s lord and his wife, Margaret de Bohun, has not entirely escaped.

But, now the plague has passed, the people of Meonbridge must work together to rebuild their lives. However, tensions mount between the de Bohuns and their tenants, as the workers realise their new scarceness means they can demand higher wages and dictate their own lives.

When the tensions deepen into violence and disorder, and the men – lord and villagers alike – seem unable to find any resolution, the women – Alice, Eleanor and Margaret – must step forward to find a way out of the conflict that is tearing Meonbridge apart.

If you enjoy well-researched, immersive historical fiction, set in a turbulent and challenging time, with strong but credible female characters, you’ll love Fortune’s Wheel, the first of the MEONBRIDGE CHRONICLES.


Chapter 1

June 1349

Alice atte Wode gazed around the vast high space of the manor’s great hall. It was only six months ago that Meonbridge had come together here for the Christmas celebration. Then, everyone was full of dread; fearful of the news they’d heard about a terrible sickness sweeping across the world and already at England’s shores. But at least they were then still all together. 

Alice’s beloved Stephen had still been alive, and their sweet boy Geoffrey, both now lying cold in the common grave that Stephen himself had ordered to be dug, as more and more folk died and the churchyard no longer had space for them all.

And it was Agnes’s last evening before she disappeared, only the Good Lord Himself knew where. The girl had seemed uninterested in the celebrations, sitting silent and distracted, with none of her usual vivacity. She hadn’t even bothered with her appearance, neither begging her father for a new kirtle, as she often did for Christmas, nor even taking any trouble to decorate her hair, but letting her yellow curls hang plain and loose. 

Tonight was Midsummer’s Eve, usually a time of revelry and merrymaking, with games and mummers, and a great feast held on the village green. But this year, the new priest, Master Hugo Garret, decreed the festival would be one of thanksgiving, not merriment. At church the other Sunday, he mounted his platform on the chancel steps and glared at his flock standing together in the nave.

‘This Midsummer Eve,’ he said, ‘all must come here to church, to pray and thank God and Our Lady for delivering Meonbridge from the evil that has stalked our lanes and byways since last Christmastide.’ A few among the congregation murmured discontent, but Master Hugo glared again and coughed. ‘Only then will it be fitting for the village to come together for a communal dinner.’

But, after months of constant rain, the green was too muddy for the dinner to be held in the usual place just beyond the church door, so, after prayers, everyone trooped up to the manor house.

The hall was festooned with the Midsummer decorations of birch boughs, fennel and orpine, and garlands of flowers, and a hundred candles lit up the shadows. Despite the priest’s avowal that this should not be a merry feast, it seemed that Lady Margaret had worked hard to bring some cheer to the occasion: a cheer most guests scarcely felt, despite doing their best to smile and wish each other good fortune.

But it was hard for them all; Alice wasn’t alone in her grieving.

Her sons, John and little Matthew, were sitting on her right, and on her other side sat Simon Hogge, the butcher, and his wife Ann, still mourning the loss of their only child. They were young enough to have more children, but knowing this didn’t make up for the ghastly death of their darling Elizabeth, a child of three with a mop of fair curls, a sunny smile and a perpetually dirty face. She was naughty but sweet-natured, the apple of her parents’ eye. Yet no more so than the three small children of Agnes and Alexander Baker, or the grown-up daughters of Margery Watson, or the two young sons of Robert Tyler, the bailiff, who had also lost his wife. Or, of course, Peter, the last surviving son of Joan and Thomas Miller. The Millers hadn’t come this evening: Thomas was still in shock, and Joan had taken to her bed and wouldn’t be coaxed out of it. And who could blame her? No one here.

The parish clerk had drawn up a list of the dead, and Alice went to see it. Although she couldn’t read the names, she could see the list was very long. Alice knew everyone who had died. She knew all their stories. It had become her business to know, not because she was a gossip but because all the village families were her friends and neighbours, and she made a point of visiting them all and they were only too happy to pour out their hearts to her.

This was of course the job of the parish priest, but Master Hugo had come only recently to Meonbridge, given the post just a month ago, eight long, worrying weeks after dear Master Aelwyn finally gave up his soul to God. Hugo knew no one in the village and was finding it hard to become accepted. Many folk no longer trusted the Church: angry that Meonbridge was left without a priest for two whole months, they didn’t understand why God’s ministers on earth couldn’t prevent the plague’s horrific spread. They were aghast when God’s wrath struck down two of His own, Aelwyn himself, and Alice’s own son Geoffrey, apprenticed to Aelwyn and taking his first steps in training to be a priest.

The Church was no longer the rock of safety they had imagined it to be.

Sir Richard de Bohun banged on the table and rose to his feet. He looked thin and haggard, the neat rufous beard of his youth now grey and shaggy. The lord of Meonbridge was a man of action, not fashionable but careful with his dress and appearance. But, despite seeming to work hard at his smile, it was clear he too had been shaken by the horrors of the past six months.

‘My friends,’ he said, raising his voice and holding his goblet in the air. ‘Let us raise our cups and give good cheer to one another. And let us give thanks to God that He has delivered us from the great mortality that has laid waste to Meonbridge, and taken so many of our loved ones from us.’

A small commotion rippled around the hall as everyone lifted high their cups, brimming with Sir Richard’s good ale, and calls of ‘Thanks be to God!’ rose up into the rafters.

Alice lifted her best pewter goblet and, turning to her sons, bade them knock their wooden cups together. ‘May we have good fortune.’

‘Good fortune, Ma,’ said John, forcing a smile, then wrapped a great arm around her shoulder and crushed her to his chest. A tear escaped from his eye, and he wiped it roughly away on the sleeve of his best tunic. ‘God knows, we need it. Yet no more so than our friends and neighbours.’

She eased herself up from the bench and gave him a brief hug, then reached for Matthew and, grasping him to her, kissed him on the forehead. He quickly pulled away, his cheeks aflame.

‘God bless, Mam,’ he mumbled and retreated to his seat the other side of his brother.

Sir Richard banged the table again and rose once more to speak. He held up his hand for quiet. ‘My friends, it is time for us all to take our fill. Neighbours, it has been a difficult time for us all. Our fields and crofts have had short shrift, our animals given less care than we are accustomed to give. Our stocks are low and our harvest may be small, but what we share with you this Midsummer’s Eve, Margaret and I give with our heartiest blessings. Eat, friends, eat your fill.’

Alice leaned towards John, and whispered in his ear. ‘Sir Richard’s very good at acting the generous host, don’t you think?’

John grinned.

‘At manor feasts,’ she continued, ‘he always seems the very model of the kindly benefactor, graciously sharing his bounty with his servants.’

John nodded and leaned close to her ear. ‘But, though we’re willing enough to take advantage of his hospitality, we’re not fooled. It’s we who bring in the harvests.’

She pursed her lips. She was not alone in thinking Sir Richard a hard master, who extracted every ounce of work from his tenants and insisted on the payment of every fee and fine. Yet she knew well enough that Margaret didn’t share her husband’s views on the treatment of his tenants, though she presumed the lady still kept her counsel, for Richard had never been a man to argue with.

As Sir Richard sat down again, Margaret gave a signal and the manor servants entered in a small procession bearing aloft the dishes for the feast. It was a welcome sight. Alice’s family didn’t go hungry, even in these difficult times. But many of her neighbours had struggled more than usual these past few months, with their fields, crofts and livestock so neglected. This banquet, meagre perhaps compared with those of the past, was nonetheless a grand affair.

As the recent widow of the reeve, Alice was seated with her sons close to the high table, so she had a good view of the procession of dishes, which came first to the de Bohuns and their most important guests, and then to her table. Roasted meats glistened on their trenchers, together with dozens of small birds – woodcock perhaps, trapped in the local forest. There were pigeon pies and a rich venison brewet served with a creamy wheat and almond milk frumenty, pease pudding and a thin spicy mortrews. As well as the usual dark rye and barley bread, they all shared a few small maslin loaves that contained a little wheat flour – Sir Richard was probably the only one in Meonbridge who still had wheat from last year’s harvest, but at least he was sharing it with his tenants.

Excitement buzzed around the company as the dishes were presented, then near-silence descended as everyone fell upon the food and devoured what was, for many, the only substantial meal they’d had for several months. It wasn’t long before the meat and bread and all the accompaniments had been consumed, and Margaret called for the tables to be cleared and restocked with a variety of sweet and spicy confections. The wine and ale continued to flow, and the silence was swallowed up again into a noisy babble, as low spirits were raised and, if only for a short time, losses and worries set aside, and a little laughter returned to Meonbridge.

Alice and her sons were amongst the last to leave the celebration. She lingered, hoping somehow to have the opportunity to make her peace with Margaret, but she managed to do little more than take the lady’s hand and wish her good fortune. But Margaret did clasp her hand firmly in return and smiled warmly, so Alice hoped it might yet be possible to mend the rift between them. Despite everything, she wanted to. John thought she should still keep her distance, after what had happened, but that was really not her way.

Taking his arm as they emerged from the manor gate, she stepped cautiously onto the broad wooden bridge that crossed the river just beyond, for it was slippery from the rain. It was a bright, cool evening. The rain had stopped, the moon broken through the clouds, but, even though it was June, she was shivering and wrapped Stephen’s best woollen cloak tightly around herself. They stopped for a moment on the bridge to look down into the river, shimmering in the moonlight, and rushing noisily downstream towards the mill, full from the torrents of rain that had fallen for so many weeks. Then she took Matthew’s hand in her free one and the three of them marched briskly the short distance to their cottage.

Download your copy of
Fortune's Wheel

Carolyn Hughes

Carolyn Hughes was born in London, but has lived most of her life in Hampshire. After a first degree in Classics and English, she started her working life as a computer programmer, in those days a very new profession. It was fun for a few years, but she left to become a school careers officer in Dorset.

But it was when she discovered technical authoring that she knew she had found her vocation. She spent the next few decades writing and editing all sorts of material, some fascinating, some dull, for a wide variety of clients, including an international hotel group, medical instrument manufacturers and the Government.

She has written creatively for most of her adult life, but it was not until her children grew up and flew the nest, several years ago, that creative writing and, especially, writing historical fiction, took centre stage in her life.

She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Portsmouth University, and a PhD from the University of Southampton.

Connect with Carolyn: