"Superbly researched...a brilliantly realized vision of a typical medieval English village...Exquisitely written...Suspenseful from start to surprising conclusion." -Publishers Weekly (starred)
"Margaret Frazer's tales are charmingly and intelligently contrived."-Minneapolis Star Tribune
Read an Excerpt
The last clouds of yesterday's rain were no more than high white wisps across the summer-vaulted sky, tattered out and carried away on a warm west wind that bid to hold fair for the next few days and the weather with it, perfect for the haying that needed to be done before St. Peter and Paul.
Seated on the bench under the squat-trunked oak at the church-end of the village green, Simon Perryn let the satisfaction of that almost-certainty sink deep into him along with the day's June warmth.
If all held as it was, there'd finally be a harvest worth the name this year, after three years of rain and cold and more of the crops rotting in the fields than ripened. It had been a famine winter this last year, with everything brought near to the bone; but not so near as it would have gone if the nuns had not done their part, somehow managing to buy rye from somewhere the harvests hadn't been as bad and sharing it out with the village, and even then word was that they had been living on the hunger side of things, too.
Not that the hunger was over yet nor would be until harvest was safely done and the granaries, please God and St. Peter-in-Harvest, full, but the year was well enough on now that the early peas were ready in the pod and the young onions well up and there were greens to be had for those who went gleaning the field and hedge and wood edges for them and now and again a plumped-out rabbit if someone cared to set a snare when no one else was looking; and the villagers were most marvelous-skilled at not looking.
Not at snares anyway.Everything else they seemed to see well enough and too well, Simon thought, eyeing the cluster of folk in front of him. He was Lord Lovell's reeve for Prior Byfield and mostly glad of it. On the whole, it was better to be reeve than not, set to overseeing village matters rather than being overseen except for when Master Spencer, Lord Lovell's bailiff for his properties in northern Oxfordshire into Warwickshire, came twice yearly to sort out troubles, collect fees, and check records, or whenvery much more rarely, thank the Blessed Virgin for mercyMaster Holt, Lord Lovell's high steward, came on his circuit, making general survey of his lord's properties. Happily, Lord Lovell held lands through most of England, with Prior Byfield one of the least of his holdings and not often worth Master Holt's visiting, so long as its due services and fees were accomplished and no great troubles arose.
Dealing with troubles before they became great was one of Simon's tasks as the manor's reeve, for which he was excused his own fees and most of the services he owed Lord Lovell for holding of his house and lands, an exchange that he found to his good, even on days like this when it was time to hold Prior Byfield's three-month court and sort out whatever village matters had collected since the last one. At least the weather could not have been better, letting them be out here in the oak shade instead of cramped into the alehouse or being chill in the church.
Beside him on the bench, Master Naylor shifted, glanced up to judge the time by the sun's slant through the leaves, and asked, "That's the most of this lot, then?" of Father Edmund, the village priest who sat to one side with paper, pen and ink at a table carried out from his house, keeping record of what was decided in each matter.
Father Edmund finished scratching down that Bess Underbush had been fined two pence for breach of the assize of ale, having begun to sell a brewing before the village's ale tasterpresently Philip Green, who was never one to let a chance for free ale pass him by and was therefore diligent in the officehad had chance to taste and pass it as meeting all the rules regarding ale for sale. Not that Bess had ever brewed a bad lot of ale in her life, but law was law and every brewing had to be approved as good before soldthough there was justice in Bess saying as she'd paid down her two pence that, "I'm still ahead in the matter. He always drinks down six pence worth when he comes a-tasting," and Philip Green's flush and the onlookers' laughter had agreed with her.
Now Father Henry turned from noting her fine to the list of other matters to be dealt with today and said, reading ahead, "One more minor matter and then the four main ones before we're done."
Master Naylor looked to Simon with silent question of whether they should pause a while or go on.
Prior Byfield was held by two lords, part of the manor belonging to Lord Lovell, part to St. Frideswide's nunnery, so that some of the villagers held their land of Lord Lovell, others from the nunnery, and somethough not Simon himself, thank the saintsfrom both. Therefore the rights and customs under which some of the villagers lived differed from the rights and customs ruling others, and whoever held from both Lord Lovell and the nunnery had to deal with both sets of rights and customs, according to which of their holdings was in the matter. Mind, Simon knew of villages owned by three and even more lords, and the tangle there must be nigh to unholy sometimes. The saints knew it could be bad enough here, but all but the worst of confusions were usually avoided because the nunnery's steward and the village's reeve had long since taken to holding the manors' courts together, seeing to things all at once instead of separately. Not that that couldn't cause troubles upon occasion; and if, as had sometimes happened in the past, either steward or reeve were unreasonable men it did not work at all, but Master Naylor and Simon had worked together for five years now, and for the most part it went well. They were both men who could see two sides of a problem at once, even when one of the sides wasn't his own, and they both preferred fairness to greed in settling problems, so they did well enough together on most things, and Simon now nodded agreement without need for Master Naylor to ask it aloud that they should go straight on with the court rather than pause a while, because they both knew a pause would give their six jurors a chance to wander off. Then they would have to be gathered in again and time wasted doing it, whereas if they pressed straight on, things might be finished in time for Simon to finish weeding his last furlong in Shaldewell Field today.
Master Naylor passed his nod on to Father Edmund, who said in his clear priest's voice, "Hal Millwarde, miller, come before the court."
Simon made a silent, inward sigh and settled himself as his cousin swaggered out from the mingled gathering of onlookers to stand before him and Master Naylor, giving a sideways frown at the jurors on their two benches, a distrustful glower at the priest with his poised pen, and a deeper glower at Simon whose fault he held this all to be because the windmill on the rise west of the village, where the village's and nunnery's grain was ground, was Lord Lovell's and its jurisdiction therefore under Simon. It was a thing Simon could not change nor Hal forgive him, despite they went through this every few courts. Summoned at least once a year for taking excessive toll for grinding of someone's grain, Hal always protested he'd done nothing wrong; everyone ignored his protest because it wasn't tree; he was fined and he paid and went away grumbling that he'd been wronged yet again, though he and everyone else knew he hadn't been, and that his family would starve, though they never did.
But Hal was ever one who loved a good grumble, and come next chance they met at the alehouse, Simon would buy him an ale, listen to his complaints, agree he had a hard life, and afterwards their friendship would be back to where it had comfortably been since childhood until the next time Hal came before the court.
It went the usual way this time. Charged with taking a larger portion of the flour he had ground than he should have for his fee from three different folk in the village just before Easter, Hal protested they had all under-judged how much grain they had brought him. Called out to testify, all three swore they had taken care to measure their grain in Father Edmund's presence before going to the mill because everyone knew that Lent was the time of year Hal Millwarde tended most to be greedy. Father Edmund agreed he had witnessed their measuring and that it had been as they said. The jurors, knowing the miller, knowing their neighbors, and trusting the priest, found Hal guilty and, annoyed because everyone had already been going more short of food than usual this Lent after last year's poor harvest, making Hal doubly in the wrong to take such advantage of his place, fined him three pence instead of the usual two.
Outraged, Hal swung from them to Simon, demanding, "You're not agreeing to that, are you? Three pence? Three pence instead of two? Where's the justice in that?"
"I don't know," Simon said. "If it was me, I'd have said justice would have been better served in charging you four pence for it." Then added while Hal gaped at him, "Or maybe I would have made it five."
Offended past words, Hal snapped his mouth shut and swung toward the priest, plunging hand in pouch to fumble out the needed coins and throw them on the table before stalking away in perfected fury, leaving Simon to suppose it would take at least two bowls of ale to bring him around the next time they met.
To hand next was the more troublesome matter of Jenet atte Forge and Hamon Otale, and Simon was glad they were both the nunnery's villeins and so Master Naylor's problem, not his. As all of Prior Byfield knew, Jenet had loaned Hamonand why she had ever thought he could repay it, Hamon being, even by the most generous estimate, hardly competent to do anything more on his own than tie up his hosenthree shillings last autumn, to be repaid at Whitsuntide. Whitsuntide being past and no sign of her money coming home, Jenet had brought plea against him.
Master Naylor, with his usual intent attention, listened to Hamon's shuffle-footed admitting that he hadn't the money anymore or anything even close to it. "I meant to buy a cart and do some carting," he said. "Only the cart broke down at midwinter, see. Past fixing, it was, and nothing I could do about, so there I am, aren't I?"
There he was indeed, Master Naylor agreed, forbearing to point out what everyone in the village knewthat the cart had been almost past use even when Hamon had first brought it back from Banbury. But Hamon was not someone who learned from anything he ever did or anything he was ever told, and Master Naylor merely asked Father Edmund to read out, for the jurors to hear, the indenture drawn up between Jenet and Hamon last autumn. It was among the first things Father Edmund had done when he first came to be priest here. After the rather under-learned and under-devoted priest they had had for a while between Father Clement's death and him, his clerkly skills were almost as welcome as his churchly ones. He had laid out the indenture simply and clearly, and the jurors nodded easy understanding at its end and asked Hamon's sureties, Walter Hopper and Dick Blakeman, to come forward.
Because manor law required everyone who held property in Prior Byfield manor to attend all manor courts, Walter and Dick were inevitably there, even if they had not known this was coming, and came elbowing out from among the other holders to acknowledge that those were their sign manuals, yes, they had agreed to stand surety for Hamon repaying Jenet her three shillings, and since he could not, yes, they agreedDick very unhappilythat they were responsible to Jenet for her money.
"And since I talked Dick into it, when he would rather have not," Walter said, "I'll take the whole of it on myself, please you, Master Naylor."
Dick and Master Naylor and everyone else fixed surprised looks on Walter.
"You've the money to hand to pay her?" Master Naylor asked, ready money in that quantity not easily come by for most folk, even someone who made the best of his holding and something more on the side with leather work the way Walter did, and it was no surprise he answered, "Nay." But he went on, "But I've a cow in milk that I'll turn over to Jenet's use until I can repay her, if she will. Though likely that won't be until after Michaelmas," he added apologetically.
"It's your brown-spotted cow you mean?" Jenet asked. "With the cracked horn?" There was as little about each other's livestock as about each other's lives the villagers didn't know, and if that was the cow Walter was offering, it was a good offer indeed.
"Aye, that's her," Walter said.
"Done," Jenet answered and looked toward the jurors for confirmation. "Yes? You agree it's fair?"
If Jenet thought a thing was fair, there was unlikely to be anyone foolish enough to disagree with her. Six heads nodded ready agreement and she nodded back, saying, "Good, then. Father Edmund, put it down."
Simon was not altogether sure he saw a twitch that might have been a smile in a more open man at the corner of Master Naylor's mouth, but there were smiles enough among the onlookers, and Dick Blakeman was shaking Walter Hopper's hand with gratitude at being saved responsibility for three shillings he could ill afford just now, what with his wife being near to birthing their fourth child and Dick needing to hire the help she wouldn't be able to give him in their fields this summer.
The question was, for Simon, why either man had agreed to stand surety for someone as hapless as Hamon Otale. Or, more to the point, why Walter had been willing to stand surety and talked Dick into it. But maybe Dick would hire Hamon for the summer and then Hamon would be able to pay Walter something back.
For the time being anyway, everyone seemed satisfied on all sides and that was better than the next matter was likely to turn out, Simon thought uncomfortably as Father Edmund called Tomkin Goddard and John Gregory forward.
Probably sharing Simon's certainty of trouble coming and knowing the brunt of the decision and the displeasures that would fall on them afterward, the jurors shifted on their benches, while the onlookers roused to smothered laughter and elbowing among themselves as Tomkin and John shoved out from opposite sides of the crowd into the open in front of Simon and Master Naylor, sending each other angry looks and keeping what distance between them they could. Even as boys, the two of them had never been able to abide each other, and that wasn't helped by their messuagestheir houses and garthsbeing side by each at the green's lower end, making it easy for them to be forever able to find ways of offending one another. Nor did it help that Tomkin Goddard was Lord Lovell's villein while John Gregory was the nunnery's, and each expected reeve or steward to back whatever they did against the other, no matter what it was.
Unhappily for them, neither Simon nor Master Naylor chose to see matters that simply. More often than not, Tomkin and John found themselves at the displeasure of both men, and today was one of those times. Master Naylor, with no sign of the discomfort Simon and the jurors were sharing, fixed a hard stare first on them both, then looked at the jurors and asked, "May I question?"
The jurors nodded readily. There were more ways than one to handle court matters but inevitably someone would have to question, and very openly every juror preferred it to be someone else this time. In truth, so did Simon, and when Master Naylor looked to him for his permission, he gave it readily. Questioning Tomkin and John too often turned into a shouting match between them and against whoever was trying to determine where right and wrong might lie in the matter, and even now both men had their mouths open, ready to speak, but finding themselves suddenly in Master Naylor's care, they snapped their mouths shut, wary, because they had been dealt with by Master Naylor before this and had not enjoyed it.
Nor did they now, as Master Naylor tersely asked at Tomkin, "It was your goat went through John Gregory's fence and ate three young cabbages and a dozen onions in his garden?"
"Aye. But she wouldn't have been in there if he kept the fence mended ..."
Master Naylor silenced him with a slightly raised hand and asked at John, "It was your fence that let through Tomkin Goddard's goat?"
"No 'let' about it," John answered, surly with his wrongs. "The beast shoved right through, broke a hole ..."
"Whereupon you threw stones at the goat?" Master Naylor asked.
"Aye! And I'd do it again. That ..."
"Whereupon you, Tomkin, then threw a stone at John, yes?" Master Naylor asked.
"Only because ..." Tomkin started.
"And then you threw a stone at him?" Master Naylor asked John.
"Aye. The ..."
"Whereupon your wives, having more sense than either of you, stopped you both from doing more. Yes?"
John and Tomkin shuffled for answer while from the edges of the onlookers their wives nodded vigorous agreement.
Master Naylor turned to the jurors. "You've heard them both admit to assault on one another. I suggest you should find them both in mercy for it and ..."
"Here now!" John protested. "That's not ..."
" ... fine them accordingly," Master Naylor finished.
"What about my fence? That goat made a great hole ..."
"There was hole there already! That's how she ..."
"We'll deal with fence and goat next," Master Naylor said quellingly. "Sirs?"
The jurors' heads went together, their talk low but brisk and brief before one of them, Martin whose messuage was at the bottom of the village not far from Tomkin's and John's, stood up to say formally, "We find them both in mercy for assault, to be fined one pence each for the fault."
He and the rest of the jurors seemed to think that ended it, though he was carefully not looking at Tomkin and John's furious faces, but Simon asked, "And their weapons?" because any weapon used against someone was supposed to be seized, to be sold or recovered by way of fine, for the lord's profit.
Martin cast him a perturbed glance, but Tod Denton on the rear bench tugged at Martin's tunic hem, bringing him down to whisper in his ear, the other jurors leaning to listen and all of them nodding agreement before Martin straightened to say for all of them, holding in a grin, "The weapons they used being stones, we leave it to you and Master Naylor to decide their worth and if you want them."
"Stones be damned!" John snarled. "What about my fence and garden that goat ruined?"
Martin added hastily at Master Naylor and Simon, "And we leave the matter of damage done to fence, garden, and goat to both of you, too," and sat down quickly.
"Not that there was any damage done that goat," Tod put in. "She's a hide like an ale cask. I went to see her and couldn't find even a bump."
"Damn the goat!" John yelled. "It's my garden and fence that took the hurt!"
"If you kept your fence mended ..." Tomkin began at him.
Master Naylor suggested, without raised voice, "There can be fines for disrupting court, you know."
Both men shut up and Master Naylor asked Simon, "How would you say we should decide this goat and fence and garden, Perryn?"
Since Master Naylor had so tidily dealt with the worst part of the problem, Simon took this share of it willingly. "I'd say it only right that Tomkin replace what the goat ate in the garden. Three cabbage plants and a dozen young onions."
"Ha!" John exclaimed triumphantly while Tomkin went red-faced and Simon went on, "And John must repair his fence and keep it in repair to the common good or be fined one pence again whenever there's trouble with it proved against him."
Now Tomkin went, "Ha!" and John red-faced, but their wives, knowing a good time to escape even if their husbands did not, came forward, each to take her own man by the arm and draw him off.
It had all gone far more simply than Simon had feared it would, but now they had to face the next matter, and despite it looked to be simpler, a mere shifting of a lease from one man to another, he knew there was going to be trouble not so easily gone around as Tomkin Goddard's and John Gregory's.
Father Edmund was summoning the men forward now and all the differences between them were unhappily plain to see. Matthew Woderove glanced from Simon to Master Naylor to the jurors, trying for confidence but his shoulders already beginning to huddle against what he feared was coming. Even his clothing betrayed himtunic and hosen and shoes as worn and fired and past their best as he waswhile Gilbey Dunn, taking place beside him, wore prosperity's certainty as easily and well as he wore his wide-cut, well-dyed, knee-length gown of finely woven dark russet wool, his hosen unpatched, his soft leather shoes so new they hadn't lost their shape yet. There could hardly be doubt whether or not the lease for Farnfield, a stretch of rough pasture land along the woodshore beyond the fields, should go to Gilbey, except for knowing how hard the loss would be for Matthew, much though he deserved it, having let the land go to waste while he held it.
Still, the decision would have been easier, Simon thought, if he could have disliked Matthew. It should not have been difficult; the man had no skill at anything, failed at everything, including his marriage to Simon's sister, though Simon had several opinionsnot all of them to Matthew's faultabout where the failure lay there, and he had long since stopped asking himself how Mary had ever come to marry so hapless a man, there hardly ever being answer to what drew such ill-suited folk to one another, though between Matthew and Mary, Simon knew it had had much to do with Matthew being the handsomest boy in the village in his time and bidding fair to be one of the richest men if he kept on with what his father had begun. But he hadn't. Nor was he handsome anymore, being one of those men who left their best looks behind them well before they were thirty. Not that Simon felt he had much to his own credit on that side, but at least he'd had the sense to marry Anne and not some shallow-wit like his sister who couldn't do more for a man than make his life miserable when she didn't have all she wanted ...
Simon made a hasty prayer of penance for the thought's unkindness and set himself to what had to be done here and now, regardless of how he wished things were for Matthew. Though Gilbey Dunn and Matthew were both Lord Lovell's villeins, the land and lease in question belonged to St. Frideswide's, and so it was to Master Naylor that Gilbey was stating his desire to take over the lease on Farnfield since it had come to its end at Midsummer yesterday.
By form, Master Naylor asked, "And you, Matthew Woderove, are you desirous of giving it up?"
Although he had to have known the question was coming, Matthew hesitated as if surprised at being asked, said, "No," uncertainly, then tried for firmer. "No. No, not at all. It was held by my father and then by me for twenty years now. I want to renew the lease."
Simon inwardly sighed. He had known it was unlikely that Matthew would simply let it go but he had hoped it anyway. What made despising Matthew difficult was that he tried so hard, meant so well in everything he did, even if it was all to such little avail. Over and over again he had failed where he should have succeeded, ignored where he should have paid heed, and now, because he had ignored the Farnfield land for so long, he was about to fail in his bid to keep it, and failure to keep land was nigh to the worst failure a man could have. He would still have his main holding and the land that went with it, inherited from his father, but leased land was the lord's to take back and give elsewhere if need be, and Matthew had let it become necessary.
With his face and voice seemingly disinterested in the matter though surely he was having much the same thought, Master Naylor said to Matthew, "You understand that twenty years make changes in things and the lease can't be renewed under the old terms. What terms do you offer in their stead?"
"I ..." Matthew fumbled to a stop, looked around for help that wasn't there, gathered himself, and said, blinking rapidly, "I offer the old terms and ... and three pence more rent a year."
It was not much of an offer but more than he probably should make, considering he had probably been losing money on the land instead of making it, with the waste he'd made of it these past five years.
Master Naylor looked to Gilbey. "And you offer?"
"A shilling and a half rent a year and a tithe of whatever profit I make from the land above that," Gilbey said evenly. Half again as much the ready money Matthew presently paid, plus a tithe that was no part of the present lease. Discontented murmurs ran among the onlookers at such a hopeless outbidding of Matthew. There was little liking in the village for Gilbey Dunn.
Master Naylor leaned a little forward to ask Gilbey with open curiosity, "What is it you plan to do that makes the land worth that much to you?"
Gilbey made a small shrug as if it hardly mattered. "Pasturing, I think. I've a mind to run a few more milch cows and maybe some beef, once it's cleared to use again."
He said it simply but Simon doubted that was the whole of it. Gilbey and money found their way to each other too often and too seemingly easily for anything to be that simple. And here was Gilbey, sure enough, beginning to bargain, saying, "But I'd not expect to pay above half-rent this year, what with the cost of clearing it and me not able to use it until that's done."
"But still answer for the tithe," Master Naylor returned, knowing Gilbey as well as Simon did, "supposing you should make something from it this year after all."
"Aye, I'll still answer for the tithe," Gilbey agreed, with a shade of grudging behind the words.
Master Naylor looked to Matthew. "Can you better what he offers?"
Matthew sent an angry look Gilbey's way before saying sullenly at the ground in front of himself, "No."
Master Naylor looked to Simon, asking as he had to, for form's sake, despite they already knew what Simon must needs answer, "What say you, Perryn? Would I do well to give the lease to Gilbey Dunn or not?" Wanting Simon's yea or nay in the matter because Simon was Lord Lovell's reeve and Gilbey and Matthew were Lord Lovell's villeins.
And Simon answered strongly, refusing to be a coward at it, "All considered, I see no reason he shouldn't have it for what he's offered."
He looked at Matthew then, trying to let him see that he was sorry, but an outraged exclaim behind Matthew had already jerked his head around toward his wife shoving out from among the onlookers. A dull, deep flush swept up Matthew's face as he moved to stop her; and Simon's own wife, Anne, was behind her, trying, as Simon had asked her, to hold Mary back and talk her into quietness, but Mary was having none of either Anne or Matthew. Leaving Anne behind and passing Matthew with a sideways swipe that shoved his reaching hand away, she closed on Gilbey, to say fiercely, thrusting a pointing finger at his face, "You'll put your nose into other people's lives once too often, Gilbey Dunn. That's our land you're taking! You mind what I say!"
"Mary, please," Matthew pleaded from behind her. "It's done. Come away. Please."
"Our land!" she insisted at Gilbey who was making no move to answer her, only standing there, and now Anne was there, too, taking her by the arm, trying to make her heed but being as ignored as Matthew was.
It was Father Edmund saying from the table with his quiet priestly authority, "Mary. That's enough," that stopped her. She pulled up short, threw him a glance hot with anger, threw other glances at Simon and Master Naylor no less angry, then let herself be drawn away by Anne, with Matthew following close on her other side; and as Anne circled her away around the onlookers, Mary turned her anger and thrusting finger on him instead, making Simon glad not to hear what she was saying while they went.
Beside him Master Naylor took up as if undisturbed by any of it and said, "Then, Gilbey Dunn, let the lease on Farnfield be yours on these terms. To run for ten years, from Midsummer to Midsummer, at a shilling and a half rent a year and a tithe of your profit above that, with the rent to be one shilling for this first year because of the land being much in waste. Agreed?"
Gilbey opened his mouth as if to protest the change to what he had offered, then changed his mind and said, "Agreed."
He and Master Naylor and Simon all looked to the jurors, their decision not needed in a matter like this but their witness wanted against later disagreement, should it come. They all nodded understanding of what had passed, and Master Naylor said, "Let it be so noted," to Father Edmund, who nodded in return without looking up from his pen scratching across paper.
Gilbey bowed to Master Naylor and to Simon and withdrew, leaving Simon glad to be finished with both him and the lease despite knowing there would be listening to Mary over it later. Their father had always called her his 'little bird' because she had beenand wasso small built and lively, pretty in her childhood and pretty enough now, for that matter, he supposed, but the word for her that always came to Simon's mind was "shrew," and as good a question as to why she'd married Matthew Woderove was why had Matthew had married her.
Still, to each their own and, "There's only the dividing of William Bonde's land between Alson and young William still to do today," he said.
"And that should be no trouble?" Master Naylor asked in his ear as Alson Bonde hobbled forward on her son's arm. Her husband had been St. Frideswide's villein and therefore how his property would go between his widow and only son was Master Naylor's concern, but he freely depended on Simon's knowledge of the village and its folk in such matters, just as Simon depended on his in others, and Simon whispered back, "No trouble. They're well agreed, the last I knew."
Father Edmund rose to bring his own stool for old Alson sit on although it meant he'd have to stand to write and was thanked by her smile as she sat down gratefully.
Master Naylor inquired what the custom was concerning the Bonde holding, and Alson, whose legs might be old but whose wits were well with her, said the custom was for half of it to go the widow for her life, the other half to the eldest son. "And that part is easy enough," she added, "there being only young William," patting her son's hand where it rested on her shoulder as he stood beside her.
Young William was somewhere past thirty years old, having been born toward the end of the king-before-last's reign, and though he was married and had three sons of his own, none of them were named William, and he was likely to stay 'young William' all his life, however old he came to be.
"You say the same?" Master Naylor asked him.
"I do." His certainty was easy and unhesitant. There were few complications in young William. A fondness for too much ale on a Sunday afternoon or holiday, followed by a desire to sing more loudly than anyone so constantly far off key should ever do, was the worst that could be said about him. He was good to his wife, good to his children, good to his mother, and even if he seemed never to have a thought of his own about how things should be done, he followed other folks' ways and how things had always been done without making trouble over it. There was no reason Simon knew that he shouldn't have his share of his father's holding, nor did the jurors, when Master Naylor asked them, "What say you? Is this dividing evenly between widow and eldest son the custom as you know it for the Bonde holding?"
The jurors had been ready for the question. They bent toward each other in busy comment only briefly before Tod Denton, as the oldest, said for them all, "Aye, that's the way it's been since any of us remember. The holding divided 'tween widow and eldest son, with her share going back to the son when she dies. God keep you in possession of it a long while yet, Alson," he added.
"Thank you, Tod, and the same to you with yours," she answered.
"Then let it be put down as such," Master Naylor said, closing the matter.
And what pity it couldn't all be that easy, Simon was thinking soon afterwards, when he and Master Naylor were still sitting on the oak tree's bench but at ease, bowls of ale in hand and everyone gone away to other business, except for Simon's sons, Adam and Colyn, sitting side by side on one of the oak's upheaved roots, waiting fairly patiently for their father to have done and come away to his other business this afternoon which wasn't to be weeding that furlong in Shaldewell Field after all; he had forgotten his promise to take them fishing after manor court until he had turned from thanking Father Edmund for his help and found the two of them waiting behind him, smiling, each with a bowl of ale in one hand and fishing pole in the other.
"Mother said you might forget," Adam had said cheerfully, "and said we should bring you these to help sweeten your remembering."
So he and Master Naylor were having a drink and a friendly word before they went their ways, partly because it didn't hurt to stay friendly with a man you had so often to work with but mostly because Simon simply liked him. Steward though he was and strong hand though he kept over all the nunnery properties, letting nothing go by that was St. Frideswide's due, Master Naylor was a fair man who had never, to Simon's knowledge, misused his place or power.
Simon tried to be the same himself, and it pleased him when they could talk together almost as friends, though "almost" was as near as Master Naylor ever came with anybody, Simon thought. Still, "almost" was better than "not at all," and Simon made bold to ask, as he and Master Naylor rose to their feet, ready to part company, and Adam and Colyn leaped up to come take the empty bowls back to the alehouse, "How goes it at the nunnery then? All still well with your new prioress?"
"All's well, so far as I can tell, with both her and the nunnery," Master Naylor said. "There's nothing to complain of there."
And even if there had been, he would likely never have said so, Simon thought, idle talk not being Master Naylor's way.
But there was never harm in asking.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
So glad Margaret Frazer's family is continuing to make these available in e format. My paper copies are wearing out. I love all these stories, but this is one of my favorites. Getting to know some familiar characters better, by seeing them in a different setting adds a lot to this book, and to future books, when we meet them again.
Margaret Frazer's Dame Frevisse series is one I always meant to get around to, especially after seeing some of her posts on the historical mystery mailing list, Crime Through Time. So when a friend sent me the Reeve's Tale I was quite happy. It is the tenth in the series, and I always prefer to read series in order, but it isn't always easy to find all the books in a series. So I went ahead and read this one, and am happy i did. It is tightly plotted, with good characters, and a great sense of its time (1440 AD) and place (a small English village). Recommended.
Aside from the fact that I knew who the murderer was from a very early stage in the story, and that the solution was somewhat of a convenience, I enjoyed this story. The details of the workings of law in an English village and the daily life in the 1400s was enough to engage my mind, and as always, Frazer draws excellent characters which are worth reading about.
In this novel, Sister Frevisse gets more involved than she would like in the affairs of the village near the convent. The plot thickens when sickness comes, and much of the nuns' time is taken up in nursing. As usual, a very readable recreation of the past, though this is not my favorite in the series.