Preview – Chapter One
Monday 9th September 1483
Belina squeezed Guillaume’s leg as a warning, but he continued to shout at her brother Jordi, banging the table so that his trencher jumped. Catalina snatched it away and threw it at the cats. Geraud tried to reach his beaker but his bandaged hand overturned it and cider flowed across the table…
Monday 9th September 1483
‘I’m so sorry,’ he whispered.
‘Never mind, it’s because of your wounded arm,’ his brother replied, mopping up the cider.
The girl beside Geraud put her arm round him and muttered something that made him smile. The others wondered what it was that she’d said. So far no one had been able to speak to the new arrival, and they wished Geraud would explain who she was and where he had found her.
The couple had arrived at the mill two days ago, with Geraud unable to dismount without Jordi’s help and the girl astride a mule with two saddle-bags which she had unhooked and carried into the house, spreading dust everywhere. That was the first reason Catalina found it hard to accept her. Plenty more were to follow.
Guillaume and Jordi continued their argument about the Spanish Inquisition, each accusing the other of ignorance, while Belina watched the cats fighting over the remains of her husband’s trencher and her cousin Christau helped himself to more of Catalina’s delicious chicken with fennel.
No one noticed that the door had been pulled open until the visitor touched Guillaume’s shoulder.
‘Messire Guillaume,’ his groom said, ‘you must come at once to the Sainte Eulalie chapel.’
‘Whatever for?’ said Guillaume, scowling at him. ‘Antoni, you know very well that I told you not to disturb me when I am seeing my family.’
‘It’s urgent, Messire. There’s been a murder, and there’s blood everywhere.’
‘Who would fight in a chapel?’ Guillaume got off the bench and stretched.
‘Don’t know. A watchman was sent to find you and it took him ages. He was out of breath when he managed to track me down in your absence.’
Belina wondered if Antoni had been in his favourite tavern instead of the cathedral stables, but she kept her thoughts to herself. Best not to annoy Guillaume. He was already in a dangerous temper.
‘Antoni,’ Geraud said as loudly as he could, ‘please could you look at my horse sometime. She has carried me for hundreds of leagues right through Spain and over the Pyrenees and she’s worn out.’
But Antoni was already out of the house, helping Guillaume mount his own horse.
‘Don’t worry, Geraud,’ said Christau, wiping his hands on the tablecloth and taking no notice of Catalina’s scowls, ‘I will ask Sansas to look at your horse and deal with any sores or other problems. He is a groom and will know exactly what to do.’
Guillaume and Antoni rode into the town of Condom in silence until they reached the cathedral staff residence, where Guillaume dismounted and rushed up the stairs to his chamber. When he came back he was carrying his investigation bag. He had calmed down and put himself into observation mode, ready to start finding out what had happened in the chapel and why.
They rode down rue Jean-Baptiste past the leper colony and soon reached the chapel. Antoni’s horse pushed its way through the crowd near the chapel door, followed by Guillaume, who was watching the faces in the crowd for any telltale signs. He assumed that some of them crestias from the leper colony, but there were several pilgrims too at the chapel door asking the watchman guarding it to let them in.
Guillaume dismounted and shouldered his way through. He gave his reins to Antoni, who was still on his horse. ‘Look around carefully and remember what and who you see.’
Antoni touched his cap in acknowledgement. The crowd retreated a few feet, scared of being trampled by the two horses.
Guillaume had not been inside the Sainte Eulalie chapel for many months. It was outside his normal area of Condom, and when he went to Mass – which was not often – he joined Belina and their friends in the cathedral.
He looked around him, expecting to see the blood that Antoni had told him about. But all he saw was an altar, a dusty floor, walls with peeling paint, two large chests and another smaller one in the darkest corner.
He walked to the far end of the chapel, looked at the dust on the altar and pushed open the door to the vestry. It was there that he saw the blood – on the floor, on a green chasuble and on the body of a young woman who was lying on her back. Insects were buzzing around the blood which oozed out of her throat and on to the many jewels around her neck.
Guillaume knelt down beside the corpse, trying to stop his clothes touching the pools of blood, and noticed the flies laying their eggs in the mouth, nose and open eyes of the victim. This horrible sight told him that the death had happened that morning. He checked the eyelids and then peered at the left hand. The right one still held a needle and thread. The young woman’s skin was translucent, her lips and nails pale. Her hands were blue and her eyes were flattened.
He stood up and glowered at the man near the window. ‘Move away from the window so that I have more light.’
‘I don’t take orders from young men.’
‘Oh yes you do.’ Guillaume’s bad temper had returned. ‘I am in charge. Who are you and what are you doing here?’
‘I am Messire,’ – he stressed the word – ‘Chezelle, tooth-physician of Dame Senclar.’
‘Dead women don’t need their teeth pulled. I repeat, what are you doing inside this chapel?’
‘Dame Senclar requested me to keep a close eye on this young man here,’ he pointed to the prisoner, who was pinned to the wall by a watchman.
‘Why is Dame Senclar interested in his welfare?’
‘Because she disapproved of him very strongly indeed.’
‘Why,’ Guillaume repeated as he walked towards the watchman and the prisoner.
‘He has had the boldness to press his suit upon Dame Viola, the daughter of Consul Lussan.’ Chezelle pointed to the corpse.
Guillaume bit his lip. So the dead young woman was Viola Lussan. He wondered why she should have been in such a small chapel near the leper colony. And why she had been sewing something.
‘How does Dame Edith know that?’ Guillaume looked at the prisoner, who stared back, expressionless.
‘Dame Edith is absolutely certain this man is a murderer.’
‘What do you mean why?’ Chezelle pulled the prisoner sideways. ‘He has been working in Consul Lussan’s mansion, making furniture there in preparation for Viola’s marriage.’
‘When was that due to take place?’ said Guillaume.
‘Before Christmas. At Martinmas perchance. Depends on the dowry I expect.’
‘Consul Lussan is a rich man,’ Guillaume observed. ‘Who’s the lucky bridegroom?’
‘Not so lucky now. The girl is dead, as you can see.’
Guillaume turned round and shuddered in spite of his experience at dealing with dead bodies. He remembered that Belina used to talk about Viola Lussan. They’d been at school together. That meant the corpse was twenty-two years old, give or take.
He returned to questioning Chezelle. ‘I asked you who Dame Viola was going to marry.’
‘That’s my secret.’
‘Don’t be stupid. This is no time for secrets.’ Guillaume turned to the watchman. ‘Bring the young man out of the vestry – and don’t let him escape.’
‘He seems too docile to try that, Messire.’
‘I agree, but it could be just a ruse to catch us off guard.’
The watchman tightened his hold on the man and pushed him through the doorway into the chapel, while Chezelle began to rummage among the chasubles in the big wide chest that lay against the wall.
‘Take your hands off those holy vestments.’ Guillaume pulled the tooth-drawer away. ‘Get out of here. You’re not in your rightful place and you know it.’
‘And where is my rightful place, young man?’
‘Pulling Dame Edith’s teeth as if she were a horse, I’m sure,’ Guillaume pushed the older man through the doorway, removed the key to it from the vestry side and locked it behind him.
‘You will suffer for your bad manners,’ said Chezelle.
‘I doubt it. Just get out of the chapel before I get the watchman to sling you out.’
Guillaume thought of Belina and how much she loathed the Senclar family. Perchance she was right to hate them, and perhaps he was wrong to tease her about that hatred.
He brought himself back to the present and led Chezelle from the chapel. He could go to Dame Edith like a puppy if he wanted to, but he needed to get away from the scene of the crime right now.
Guillaume, the watchman and the prisoner followed the tooth-drawer out and Guillaume locked the door behind him, putting the long, heavy key in the purse attached to his belt. He waited until Chezelle had climbed into a carriage and been driven towards the town, then told the two watchmen to take the prisoner to the cathedral prison nearby.
‘Normally we put prisoners in the Seneschal’s gaol, Messire Lansac.’
‘I know you do. But this one has been found inside a religious building so he needs to be kept in the cathedral prison.’
The watchmen did not object – the cathedral prison was nearer. They set off with the docile prisoner, followed by Guillaume and Antoni on their horses, with Antoni telling Guillaume about the pilgrims and the musical instruments they had been carrying. ‘They all wore the same badge on their hats, Messire Guillaume. They bore an enamel Compostela shell above a pewter carving of four people.’
As they passed the leper colony Guillaume noticed that his prisoner looked straight ahead of him. No one called out from the cottages on his right, because they had formed a procession of their own, heading towards their tiny lepers’ cemetery carrying a dead child wrapped in sacking. Guillaume tried to block out the mournful singing and the sobbing of a young woman.
‘They have funerals every week, Messire,’ said the watchman in front of Guillaume. ‘Unhealthy crowd.’
‘Perchance they would be healthier if they were to get enough to eat,’ Guillaume suggested.
‘Leprosy, that’s what it is. And that’s what we shall get if this prisoner is a leper.’
Guillaume told him to keep his grip on the prisoner, but he checked the young man’s face for telltale signs of the disease, of which there were none.
They came to the massive door of the cathedral prison and greeted the guards.
‘What’s this, Messire Lansac, a thief of pilgrims’ clothes?’
‘Not this time. Much worse. Perchance he is a murderer.’
One of the guards took the prisoner and removed the satchel that was slung across his shoulder. Guillaume told him to put the prisoner in the strongest cell and to lock the satchel inside the guardroom chest. He dismounted and told Antoni to take the horses back to the stables.
The guard pushed his prisoner in front of him down the steps to the dungeon. He asked Guillaume to carry the lantern at the bottom of the stairs and they walked slowly to the end of the dusty passage. Rats scuttled away from them and cobwebs brushed Guillaume’s face. He covered his nose and mouth with his free hand as the stench worsened.
The guard stopped suddenly and Guillaume almost dropped the lantern. ‘I’ll put him in here.’ He turned a key in a massive iron lock and pushed the prisoner inside.
‘I will question him straight away,’ said Guillaume, ‘and then return to the guardroom to sign the register. May I keep the lantern please?’
‘I suppose so, but it makes it hard for me to walk back through the passage.’
‘In that case, wait here while I do my first interrogation,’ said Guillaume.
The guard looked shifty. In the background rats scurried. ‘He doesn’t look that dangerous,’ he said finally. ‘I’ll leave you to it and go back to the guardroom.’ He gave Guillaume his key, telling him to lock the door immediately after him.
Guillaume put the key in the purse hanging from his belt and listened to the guard’s footsteps fading. Then he picked up the lantern and held it near the prisoner’s face. His first impression was one of great sadness. The man’s eyes stared vacantly over Guillaume’s shoulder, his mouth was turned down and a tear leaked from his left eye. Yet he was clean shaven and carefully dressed.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Where is your home?’
The prisoner shook his head and the tear dropped to the dirty floor.
‘Answer my question. Do you live in the leper colony?’
‘Yes. That’s why I sometimes go inside the chapel.’
‘Are you a crestian?’
He nodded. ‘Yes.’
‘Did you kill the young lady?’
The crestian turned away and sobbed.
Guillaume grabbed his shoulder. ‘Answer my question, Josep.’
The man shook his head and continued sobbing. Guillaume gave up, unlocked the door, went through it quickly, and turned the key in the lock. He went carefully back to the foot of the stairs. Was the man a murderer? Was his sorrow an act or was the grief genuine?
He climbed the steps and ducked his head through the low doorway into the guardroom. He returned the dungeon cell key and said, ‘All I have been able to discover is that his name is Josep and he lives in the leper colony near here.’
The senior guard tensed and sucked in his next breath. ‘A leper? You bring us a man from the colony?’ He pushed the prison register to Guillaume at arms length with his fingertips and Guillaume wrote the prisoner’s details down.
‘Yet he is a Christian, like you and me. And he seems very miserable. Treat him gently. I don’t want him to die on us.’
‘He could be putting on an act, Messire Lansac.’
‘He could indeed, but somehow I think his unhappiness is genuine. Don’t give him anything which he could use to kill himself. Keep his satchel safely in your chest. I will be back on the morrow and question him properly.’
He signed the register and went outside into the sunshine and fresh air.
A Mystery of Blood and Dust - the new Belina Lansac murder mystery
False Rumours – A Belina Lansac Murder Mystery
Preview – Chapter One
30th August 1483
T he storm broke when Belina was waiting her turn in the apothecary’s store. To curb her impatience she gazed at the porcelain jars on the shelves, trying to decipher the Latin scripts on them. Everyone jumped at the sudden clap of thunder and the apothecary spilt the arsenic he was transferring on to a tiny cloth square lying on his poisons scales. He cursed and began again…
30th August 1483
The storm broke when Belina was waiting her turn in the apothecary’s store. To curb her impatience she gazed at the porcelain jars on the shelves, trying to decipher the Latin scripts on them. Everyone jumped at the sudden clap of thunder and the apothecary spilt the arsenic he was transferring on to a tiny cloth square lying on his poisons scales. He cursed and began again.
A small man in a physician’s red gown pushed his way to the front of the line, elbowing Belina aside. “Dame Senclar is waiting for her medicines. Hurry. Serve me first.”
The apothecary took no notice of the man and continued to weigh out two ounces of crushed arsenic for his customer’s rat poison.
The physician banged his fist on the counter so hard that everything upon it bounced. The blacksmith in the doorway growled. So did his dog.
The apothecary looked up at the man. “I have already spilled this arsenic once, and I do not intend to do so again,” he said. “You will wait your turn.” He finished concocting the rat poison and looked towards Belina, “Dame Lansac, what can I get for you?”
“A dozen phials of aygue ardente and two dozen pots of foot balm, please.”
The physician scowled at Belina. “Young women should never drink aygue ardente. Dame Senclar would disapprove of you buying such firewater.”
Belina stared at him and refrained from answering, well aware that she dare not deliberately offend the richest landowner in Condom.
Rain began to lash the cobbles outside the store and the crowds of Saturday shoppers ran to take refuge inside the cathedral. Belina paid her bill and followed them in, holding up the skirt of her tunic and taking care not to be pushed against the heap of rubble piled just outside the doorway.
It was dark and very noisy in the nave, with everyone complaining about the storm and how it would ruin the grapes. Pilgrims wandered around, glancing at the side chapels, deciding whether or not to spend the night in one of them. Several pilgrims had spread cloaks on the floor and were drinking wine from their gourds while discussing what to do next.
“This is the worst summer I have known for a pilgrimage,” declared a wiry, sunburnt pilgrim, “and I have been walking the Way of St James for over fifteen years.”
“Have you committed that many crimes?” asked a passing chorister.
“Don’t be cheeky. I walk to Compostela every year because I’m paid to by people who have inherited such an obligation. Instead of wasting four or five months going to Galicia and back they pay me to fulfil the vows of their ancestors.” He drank from his terracotta flask and hooked it back on to his belt. “And to pray for them,” he added. But the chorister had already disappeared into the vestry.
Belina looked at the pilgrim’s flask, admiring its engraving. She was about to ask him where he had acquired it when a hand reached out to grab one of the newly bought aygue ardente phials in her basket. She thumped the hand, turned and stamped on the thief’s foot.
“I was only looking,” the thief whined, withdrawing his empty hand.
“Then look with your eyes, and keep your hands to yourself,” Belina retorted. “If you want to buy some it will cost you two sous.”
He tried to bargain with her, but she was adamant. The cathedral treasurer set the price and she was forbidden to lower it. The unsuccessful thief cursed the treasurer and limped away empty-handed.
Belina held her basket close to her damp tunic and watched a group of pilgrims shuffling from one side-chapel to another, praying before each statue. Their progress was hampered by the cloaks spread out on the floor near many of the statues, but no one was dropping alms into the coin boxes placed prominently in front of each chapel. Until March that year the coin boxes had been smaller and less obvious. Rocca, the new Treasurer from Paris, had changed that. All the cathedral staff had received orders to keep their accounts up-to-date and to submit their ledgers to Rocca’s assistant, Loupmont, every Wednesday afternoon. Quiteira, Belina’s colleague in the cathedral shop, could read but not write so Belina had to find time to comply, grudgingly, with Rocca’s orders.
She edged her way through the crowd of pilgrims, avoiding the wine gourds swinging from the tops of their staffs, and joined a group of local shoppers and street tradesmen who were shouting at each other about the demonstration that morning against fines and evictions. Two ribbon sellers maintained that protesting had done more harm than good but several shoppers voiced loud disagreement. In their view, the French habit of taking to the street to demonstrate was something a Parisian like Rocca would understand. Now that Gascony had become part of south-west France, its inhabitants needed to adopt French ways of behaviour, they said.
Belina stopped listening to the argument and thought about how she would spend Sunday with her husband: getting up late, a quick Mass, and then walking with Guillaume down to the wharf and along the towpath of the river Baïse to the fishponds at Cahuzac. Perhaps they would get further, to the Beauregard mill where long ago her aunt had fed her delicious merveilles to eat while her cousin Christau took her home by boat, letting the current wash them gently down to her grandmother’s mill at Autièges, saving his strength for the more arduous row home. Now she was looking forward to eating those same honey cakes with Guillaume at the end of a special dinner in the Pont Barlet inn, a celebration he had promised for her birthday two weeks ago. His promise had been broken: the Bishop of Condom had ordered him to take an urgent message to Archdeacon Marre in Auch, and Belina’s indignant protests had been brushed aside.
Back in the present, she saw that people were leaving the cathedral. The rain had turned to drizzle. It was a good opportunity for her to walk back to the shop in case the storm returned.
Quiteira had removed all the small objects from the display counter and brought them back inside the shop. She scowled at Belina’s greeting. “You have been a long time.”
“I got caught in the rain and had to shelter in the cathedral. Someone tried to steal one of the aygue ardente phials from my basket.”
“A pilgrim or a soldier?” Quiteira asked.
“Don’t know. Might even have been a local person.”
Quiteira shook her head. Gascons did not steal, even though so many of them were hard up now-a-days what with the king’s taxes and the bishop’s taxes and the bad harvest.
Belina had had enough of listening to complaints that afternoon. She walked into the inner storeroom and arranged the firewater phials inside the cupboard and the foot balm pots on a high shelf, forgetting the moans of the citizens of Condom and beginning to hum at the thought of spending the morrow in her husband’s company. She went over to the copper basin and glanced at her face in the tin mirror, admiring the aquiline nose and large black eyes which had first attracted Guillaume to her, or so he often told her.
She unwrapped her soggy head-cloth and hung it on the rail. Her glossy dark hair tumbled down her back and she smiled at herself in the mirror. She picked up her empty basket and returned to the shop.
Quiteira was putting on her pattens and grumbling about the muddy street outside. “It’s all right for you, Belina, you live here. All you need to do is cross the courtyard and go up the stairs.” She sighed and flexed her left foot on its patten. “While I have to walk all the way to rue Cadeot. It’s not fair.”
Belina took no notice. Instead, she went outside and began to pull up the shutter. A passerby helped her and then pulled the awning down for her, spattering them both with drips from the storm. Belina’s hair clung to her cheeks and she laughed at the sudden chill touch of the water. Her helper gazed at her with great interest, and Belina supposed that he presumed her unmarried because she was not wearing a head-cloth.
“Thank you so much,” she said with a small smile and walked briskly back inside the darkened shop, colliding with Quiteira.
“Look where you’re going.” Quiteira tried to flounce off down the street, but found it difficult to walk in her pattens on the muddy cobbles. Belina lit a tallow candle so that she could lock and bolt the street door of the shop. She went through the darkened shop to the courtyard door, unlocked it and blew out the candle, wrinkling her nose at the smell.
“I live in Gascony and read every book that is published about the area. Having walked some of the very medieval streets the main character, Belina Lansac walks, I felt as though I’d become her shadow, experiencing everything she did as she takes over the role of town detective from her husband, Guillaume, who leaves home suddenly under a cloak of secrecy. There’s crime, passion, poison, wicked political scheming and murder woven in between the true, never-been-solved mystery of who killed the Princes in the Tower of London – was it Richard III, Henry VII or Henry VIII?”