The Heart of Darkness (The Chaucy Medieval Mysteries, Book 1)

By Odelia Floris

Historical fiction, Crime & mystery, Romance

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5 mins

Chapter 1: The Fall

By the next day, Lord Cunningham had indeed forgotten about his wife’s instructions to ‘deal to that insolent girl, because poor dear Sabina is pained beyond words by her cruelty’. Lady Cunningham had gone on to say, as she often did, that ‘this is what comes of marrying beneath one’s self. I told my sister at the time, again and again, as did all the family: ‘it is just a silly, childish infatuation. You must not marry him. Think of the children you might have. They will not be of good breeding, they will turn out bad sister, mark my words!’ But being a stubborn, willful girl with no pity for her unfortunate relatives, who would have to live with the shame of such a connection, she completely ignores the pleas of her family, including those of her own mother, and just goes and marries the man regardless. She always did have a wildness about her, it has to be said; right from a young age, just like her daughter’.
The late summer’s day had been hot and still. Lulled into drowsiness by the placid heat, Rowena had left her fears of retribution behind at noon and spent the rest of the day watching the thunder clouds building over the western hills. It was now late afternoon and the dark clouds towered menacingly in the sky like giant fortresses in the air. Lightning flashed from them and the boom of thunder rolled across the valley. All of nature was still and silent, as if waiting in expectation for the rain.
As the thunderstorm came directly overhead, the first heavy drops of rain began to fall, making the leaves of the trees dance franticly up and down as the droplets thudded onto them.
‘Rowena, shut the window at once!’
The young woman started at the sound of Lady Cunningham’s shrill voice, then dutifully reached out to close the window. ‘Yes, your ladyship.’
Lady Cunningham swept up to the window seat her niece sat on and started fussing with the curtains. ‘What are you thinking of? Standing there at the open window letting all the rain pour into my solar!’
‘Sorry, my lady.’
‘I really despair at you, going around with your head in a daze all the time.’
From her vantage point at the second-storey window, Rowena saw Lord Cunningham coming riding up the road in great hast. He did not usually return home from his business in Hartfeild until much later in the day. But seeing the thunder clouds building, he had no doubt decided it would be prudent to return home earlier than usual in order to avoid a soaking—although he had left it a little late.
Lord Cunningham roughly hauled his horse to a skidding stop in front of the manor’s main door. ‘Come here, you lazy scoundrel!’ he bellowed, looking around for the servant boy who usually held his horse while he dismounted.
No one came. The rain began to come on more heavily. Lord Cunningham’s long, black brocade houp-pelande robe was rapidly becoming saturated with water.
‘When I get my hands on you, boy, I’ll give you a thrashing you’ll never forget!’ he screamed furiously, dismounting from his horse and hurrying inside, leaving the riderless horse standing miserably in the downpour, hindquarters swung into the storm and tail clamped tightly down.
Rowena chuckled quietly to herself. The stable boy had probably gathered his things and left secretly in the night. He would not be the first to have done so and very likely would not be the last. The Cunninghams worked their servants hard, paid them a pittance and showed little mercy.
A short while later, Lord Cunningham made a rare entrance into the upstairs solar where his wife and daughter were seated. He had changed out of his wet robe and into a dry but otherwise very similar robe. He had also put on a more elaborate, less practical cap with a long length of cloth trailing off it, which he wore draped about his shoulders. The cap may have been fancier, but it served its main purpose just the same, which was to hide its wearer’s lack of hair. Underneath it, the top half of Lord Cunningham’s head was as smooth and hairless as an egg. Despite still being on the right side of fifty, the years had not been kind to his body.
As soon as she noticed the solar’s new occupant, Lady Sabina eagerly arose from her chair. ‘Father, do look at my new gown!’
The latest purchase from Tailor Hamo’s High-Fashion Damsel’s Outfitters on Hartfeild Market Square was a long-sleeved, high-waisted gold silk affair with a plunging neckline, a long train at the back and a full skirt so long Sabina had to lift it with one hand in order to walk.
Rowena drew herself deeper into the alcove of the window seat. She hated Sabina’s constant preening, the way she insisted on showing off every new piece of finery.
Lady Sabina twirled around in the middle of the room so everyone could get a good look. ‘Mother says that I look like a princess in it!’
Rowena used to always stop and salivate over the fabulous gowns on display in the front of the tailor’s shop every time she passed, and daydream about owning such a marvel. But after accompanying her cousin for a fitting, she had gone off the idea. The way in which the skinny tailor, with his greasy, slicked-back hair, fawned over, flattered and inflated the vanity of his customers gave her the creeps. ‘My lady, you look a marvel, a wonder! Queen Genevieve herself would not look better in this Persian silk! May I dare to suggest a little more mink fur? Oh, yes, oh my dearest lady, my poor, humble eyes can hardly bear to look upon such beauty!’ he would cry ecstatically, almost falling at his customer’s feet in worship.
Any notions Rowena might have had of scaling such giddy heights of fashion were well out of reach anyway. Her wealthy relatives gave her no financial assistance other than not charging her for food and giving her a small room at the top of the house, which required the climbing of three flights of stairs to reach. Rowena only had the money her mother had left her to live on, which was very little as they had been poor. She could only afford simple dresses, not the elaborate, richly embroidered gowns Lady Sabina wore.
Though they didn’t seem very practical, Rowena consoled herself. If she were to wear a dress like that, its long hem would get wet and muddy in no time. Doubtless it would be torn on brambles too.
When he had finished dutifully admiring the dress, Lord Cunningham turned to his wife, who sat near the fireplace working on some sewing. ‘I was over at the sheriff’s castle earlier today. Sir Richard was telling me that his personal clerk, Thomas, has disappeared. When Sir Richard went around to Thomas’s lodgings, he found all his money and possessions were still there. No sign of the man though. No one’s seen him for days. It’s as if he’s vanished into thin air. Anyway, Sir Richard was not best pleased. Fair fuming, the man was. Said his clerk was indispensable, can’t run the shire without one. But he’s yet to find a replacement. Hard to find someone suitable at short notice, I suppose.’
‘Indeed, my dear,’ responded Lady Cunningham uninterestedly, barely glancing up from her sewing.
But Lady Sabina had been listening to the news with rapt attention. She cocked her head slyly to one side and put a long, slim finger to her blood-red lips.
Rowena stiffened with anticipation. Lady Sabina always did that when a cunning and spiteful plan was brewing in her head.
‘Maybe Rowena could go over there and fill in as his clerk until a permanent replacement is found.’ Lady Sabina shot a venomous look at her cousin. ‘It would put all that learning she is so proud of to some use for once.’
Rowena caught her breath in horror. She had not met Sir Richard ‘The Black Sheriff’ Hastings and had no desire to do so. The local peasants said that in the three years he had been there he had proved to be hot-tempered, impatient, cruel and generally best avoided if at all possible. Lady Sabina, on the other hand, was most definitely in lust with Hartfield’s sheriff. ‘Isn’t he simply the most marvelous beast you have ever set eyes on?’ Lady Sabina had gushed to her friend Anne, after meeting him last winter. ‘Indeed,’ Anne had giggled. ‘I certainly would not mind being ridden by him.’ It had made Rowena cringe, and all Sabina and Anne’s obscene giggling only served to make her add ‘loved by vain and shallow women’ to the list of things she held against Chaucy’s sheriff.
Outside, the rain began to fall in torrents, spilling over the gutters and pouring down the windowpanes.
‘Hmmm, not such a bad idea…’ Lord Cunningham replied thoughtfully, before turning to his wife. ‘What think you, my dear?’
‘I think that is an excellent notion. It would give her something useful to do instead of wondering about the countryside all day like a wild animal,’ Lady Cunningham replied with a disapproving sniff.
‘Wouldn’t it be unseemly...for a maiden to be with a man un-chaperoned?’ Rowena faltered from the window seat.
Lady Sabina haughtily tossed her gauze veil over her shoulder with an expert flick of the head. ‘I am sure you need not fear on that account, Cousin. Sir Richard is a handsome man of good breeding who could have any lady he chooses. It is most unlikely that he would be interested in someone such as you.’
Rowena forced her face into a mask of stony calmness. Lady Sabina’s cruel words might have stung like a slap in the face, but Rowena was determined that her cousin would not have the satisfaction of a hurt reaction.
Unlike Rowena, Lady Sabina was considered a great beauty among the circles she moved in and drew captivated eyes to her whenever she entered a room. She had a willowy, stick-thin figure with hipbones as sharp as her tongue, and was ridiculously tall. Her skin was as pale as freshly fallen snow, her eyes large and ice-blue, and her sculpted face, with its high, high cheekbones, gave her an arresting, otherworldly appearance.
‘That’s settled then,’ said Lord Cunningham. ‘Rowena, you will go over to Eaglestone Castle tomorrow morning to start work. I will send a boy over right away to inform Sir Richard he can expect a new personal clerk.’
The look Lady Sabina rested on her open-mouthed cousin could not have been more snake-like. ‘I am sure our sheriff will be absolutely delighted.’



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