This is the third in Doherty’s series of novels based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,following on from An Ancient Evil and A Tapestry of Murders . This time the franklin tells the tale, and it begins on the bloody field of Poitiers where Sir Gilbert Savage, an English knight, has been mortally wounded. He orders his squire, Richard Greenele – our young hero – to leave the field and return at once to England. There, Richard (who had always believed himself to be an orphan of unknown parentage) is to go to Colchester, where a lawyer holds a letter for him written by his father and due to be delivered to him now that he has reached the age of eighteen. This letter will solve the mystery surrounding his birth and his family – who he is. When he gets to Colchester, he finds the city stricken by the plague, the lawyer dead, and the lawyer’s beautiful daughter, Emmeline, alone and terrified in the boarded up house.
The letter she gives him tells of murder and treachery, and of the deaths of his mother and father on an island off the north-east Essex coast which had been his father’s property until he was wrongly convicted of murder and treason. Richard travels there with Emmeline and two other companions he has picked up on the road, a royal verderer and master-bowman who rescues him when he is attacked by outlaws in the forest, and a charlatan warlock whom they save from being hanged.
It is the middle of winter, the great house is derelict and the island seems deserted; but the group are haunted by ghosts, and, it turns out, by living men: a band of vicious outlaws intent on murder and a weird hermit, Buthlac, who remembers Richard’s parents.
‘Your father!’ he exclaimed, one bony finger outstretched. ‘Aye, you have his face, the Lady Maria’s eyes. I thought that when I first saw you.’
‘So why did you try to kill me?’
‘I protect the island,’ Buthlac replied defiantly. ‘Oh, they come across the bridge there looking for plunder, wanting to set up house, even though royal proclamations say this island and all on it belong to the Crown.’ The hermit’s face broke into a wicked smile. ‘But I scares them off. You see, I am the ghost. I am the spirit of the woods. If they shelter in the house, strange fires begin, strange sounds in the night.’
‘You didn’t try that last night,’ Richard commented.
‘There were too many of you and I was curious. You didn’t look like Moon-people or outlaws and old Buthlac was curious. I sits and I watches.’
‘Did you see the knight?’
Buthlac’s eyes grew cunning.
‘Did you see the knight?’ Richard repeated. ‘He charged me across the open field.’
‘Oh, I sees him all right,’ Buthlac replied slowly. ‘But, there again, you see, Master, just because I play at ghosts and demons, doesn’t mean …’ He stared round the trees fearfully. ‘Oh, no, you take Buthlac’s words seriously, it doesn’t mean the real demons don’t prowl here.’
The usual, highly successful, Doherty mix of medieval murder and magical menace. I am really enjoying reading this series again.