Authors: Jeri Westerson
Old London Press
Crispin Guest Mysteries from Minotaur Books
VEIL OF LIES
SERPENT IN THE THORNS
THE DEMON'S PARCHMENT
SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST
Crispin Guest Mysteries from Old London Press
CUP OF BLOOD: A PREQUEL
Also from Old London Press
THOUGH HEAVEN FALL
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
This book is licensed to the original purchaser only. Duplication or distribution via any means is illegal and a violation of International Copyright Law, subject to criminal prosecution and upon conviction, fines and/or imprisonment. The eBook version cannot be legally loaned or given to others. No part of this or the eBook version can be shared or reproduced without the express permission of the publisher.
ROSES IN THE TEMPEST, Copyright © 2015 by Jeri Westerson. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address Old London Press PO Box 799, Menifee, CA 92586
Cover design by Jeri Westerson. Images by Thinkstockphotos.com and Canstockphoto.com.
Priory plan illustration created by Jeri Westerson and inspired by plan provided by David Bywater.
First Edition: April 2015
For Craig, the hero of all my tales
This novel would have been impossible to write without the generous help of all those helpful strangers across the Atlantic who gave of their free time: To webmaven Cathy Knight who found me struggling to get information on Brewood from its website, and who befriended me and gathered for me documents and maps so hard to attain; to David Horovitz who literally wrote the book on Brewood (an invaluable resource), and who also offered his time and suggestions; to David Bywater, the former owner of Blackladies for providing floor plans and photographs of the buildings; to Jane Rogers who gave helpful advice and clarification; to the Staffordshire Archive Service for their kind and prompt help; for the beta help of Rebecca Farnbach, Mark Redfern, Carol Thomas, and copy editing from Lisa Edwards; to my ever patient husband Craig; and last but not least, to a family friend who asked the question in the first place, “Whatever happened to all those poor nuns?”
For a moment the lie becomes truth. –Fëdor Dostoevski
Way back in 2001, I wrote this book when I was still thinking of writing historical fiction before I turned to medieval mysteries and my Crispin Guest series. It is unusual in that the main events in this novel were true, with every person mentioned real and factual. Even the waifs Jane and Mary existed, though we do not know their names or their fates.
I have called this a “tale” of Tudor England for a very good reason. In my initial research into this era and to this particular priory, and into the people who inhabited it, I began to form an opinion as to who the people were and their relationships to each other. It is a common practice amongst authors of historical fiction to extrapolate the facts as they know them and form their fiction around it, staying as close to the truth as they can, but naturally making up those scenes and dialogue that no one ever could have written down.
So as I began to research, it occurred to me as the bits and pieces of their lives fell into place, and the more I delved into their histories and wondered about them and their motivation for certain events, it seemed to speak to me of an unlikely love story between Thomas Giffard and Isabella Launder. After all, it is the job of the writer to ask “What if?” and to cobble together a pleasing narrative.
But in the end, it is only a pleasing story. There is no concrete evidence to suggest that there was such a relationship between these two people.
So, dear Reader, take the story for what it is. All the other events transpired as they did some five hundred years ago.
24 march, 1551
Swynnerton, Staffordshire England
What would the rose with all her pride be worth
were there no sun to call her brightness forth?
I have ridden this road in my mind too many times to count, dreading its eventuality. And now that my horse has trod that bleak ribbon, I felt nothing but numbness. It wasn’t only the cold, though today was a winter wearing its deepest mantle. There was no movement from the frosted shrubs along the verges. No breeze, no breath, no reminder of life. The only movement was a crest of dark trees along the horizon, throbbing from a distant wind.
Looking up I saw the house, a darker gray against a slate sky laid out broad behind it. With winter still misting the hedgerows, we cantered along. The stallion’s breath huffed in cloudy gusts through his bridle until we finally thumped up the long lane through the open stone gate and entered the empty courtyard.
The old house was not cared for. Not as she had cared for Blackladies, for there, even in its poverty, disrepair was worn about its timbered shoulders with all the dignity of a patched cloak.
But in this place, a place she never expected to be, tiles had vanished from the roof, and the stone foundations never saw the points of a bristle brush or soap. A broken pane of glass, like a dour eye, was gouged and replaced with a rag flapping in the breeze, beckoning me to a duty I dreaded most.
Which was her window? Was it that one with the rag?
Stiffly I dismounted, feeling every one of my sixty years, and entered the house without waiting for a groom. A servant brushed past me before jerking to a halt in surprised horror, bending almost double in belated courtesy when his eyes scoured my velvet doublet and mud-splattered jerkin—surely the richest gentleman to cross this mean threshold.
“Where?” I said. He knew what I meant. Who else could I be, even to his mill wheel brain?
“This way, Lord Giffard,” he said, and led me up a staircase whose balusters were dull and cloudy from old, unpolished beeswax. My heart pounded as I followed him down a long, dim gallery until coming upon a door. I would rather be walking into a French prison than through that sealed portal, yet my feet moved on without my willing them to that place, to that which I knew I must see.
The servant opened the door and stepped aside, allowing me to enter alone. The room smelled of mildew with a precious hint of lavender clouding the stench of decay. Heavy curtains secured the casement lest vital sunshine intrude. Instead, a candle burned at the head of the bed, its flame sputtering indignantly, issuing its own incense of smoky tallow.
I could not look at the figure reposing on the bed. Not yet. Only with my vision’s periphery did I see, taking in bedstead and shadowy bed curtains. When I finally gathered the courage to look, I gasped as I be-crossed myself. How many years was it since she wore her nun’s weeds? It was as if I viewed the past through a glass, seeing her as she was, and not as she finally became. Suddenly I was grateful. Surely this was Isabella’s last request. Or perhaps one of them. With my optimist’s heart, I hoped also that a final wish might have been to see me.
Her face was lined and waxy in death, as white as the wimple that gathered about her cheeks. Never a beauty in life, her face now radiated a luminous quality. Long fingers lay gently on a rosary upon her breast. This woman who was always my twin in height seemed now shrunken within the cloud of feather ticking.
I moved to stand beside her, shaking my head as our shared history unfolded in my mind.
Then, slowly, I knelt.
“Oh, Isabella. What wonders are you at last privy to? How trivial are the matters in this little kingdom, for you now reside in the greatest of kingdoms. I have no doubt you sit at the feet of the Almighty.” My elbows sank into the mattress and I interlaced my fingers to a single upraised fist, resting it against my whiskered chin. The flat plates of my thumbnails caressed my lower lip and I considered. “It is Thomas Giffard, in case you have forgotten.”
Almost, I thought her composed lips turned up with indulgence. I smiled. “You knew I would come. Late, of course. Too late.” I chuckled, for it was only then that I could allow tears to flow. Without it I should lose all control. “And you would not want that,” I told her corpse. “I am glad to see you so garbed. It is you who has the last laugh, then. I would tell you to give old King Hal a tweak, but I know he is not with you in that place, but in some other.” I sighed and lowered my hands, idly smoothing the rough coverlet with a callused palm before wiping the wet from my cheek.
“Isabella. Who would have thought they could take our religion from us? I saw it happening and barely understood, as powerless as the best of them to stop it. Even poor Thomas More.” I recalled them all; those who had stood against the king when he strove to put aside his good queen in favor of the whore Boleyn. If they only knew what mummery was to come of it, I wonder how many would have been the king’s man then? Of course there was Thomas Cromwell and his lackeys, but the headsman has since made shorter men of them.
And now there is sickly King Edward. If only he would die.
I glanced at her still countenance. “Forgive me, Lady Prioress. You would have scolded me for that uncharitable thought.” Watching her silent, unmoving features, I could stand it no more, and I leapt to my feet, casting aside the heavy curtains allowing the gray light of afternoon to tumble into the deadened room. I inhaled fresh air from a draughty window before turning back to her, my shoulder blades couched against the diamond panes. “And so, you are at your end, my dear Lady Prioress. Worries are done. Old sentiments set aside. Everything resolved at last.”
The feeling of a bodkin twisting in my gut was one of old, and I could not help but stare at her face and wonder, as I had wondered for so many years.
She was silent. As silent as always. No more words now. “Isabella,” I whispered. “Sweet Isabella, if we could change but one summer, which would it be?”