Franklin’s “Mistress of the Art of Death” returns in another adventure, the Salerno-trained physician a favorite of Henry II. Once more posing as an interpreter for the huge Saracen Moor Mansur, Adelia Aquilar leaves her current home in England’s fens to travel to Wales and learn of Henry’s latest task for her. A terrible fire has all but destroyed Glastonbury Abbey, the sacred site believed to be the resting place of the bones of Arthur and Guinevere.
Word of a dying man’s vision has come to the king’s attention, a vision of the burial of Arthur and his queen on the apocryphal night of an earthquake. Frustrated by the recent uprising in Wales, it is in Henry’s interest that the bodies in question be identified and properly buried at Glastonbury, along with the myth that Arthur will rise again to lead his people. Posing as Mansur’s interpreter, it is Adelia’s mission to examine the bones and confirm their authenticity: “She gives me a dead Arthur, she can name her price.”
The forest near the abbey is overrun with highwaymen, ruthless killers who prey on innocent travelers, so Henry sends as well the bishop of St. Albans, who happens to be the father of Adelia’s four-year-old daughter. It was not Rowley’s first choice to join the Church, but when a confused Adelia turned down his offer of marriage, Henry jumped at the opportunity to place a friendly ear in the church hierarchy. Now Rowley and Adelia are trapped in the consequences of her refusal, she missing him terribly, he bound by the celibacy demanded by his religion.
Adelia sets out to accomplish Henry’s directive, knowing that within a few days she will face a reunion with Rowley. With a small number of soldiers for protection, the party begins their trek to Glastonbury Abbey - Adelia, Mansur, Allie, Adelia’s servant Glytha, and a young troubadour familiar with the abbey. Adelia also looks forward to reuniting with her friend Lady Emma Wolvercote, with whom she has been traveling before Henry’s summons.
True to form, Adelia is met with difficulties from the moment of their arrival at the Pilgrim’s Inn near the abbey, the sacred place all but reduced to rubble by the fire. There is little sign of commerce in the area, the inn empty save for the recent arrivals. Even more troubling, Lady Emma is not where expected. No one admits to seeing Emma or her party, the servants strangely reluctant to make eye contact.
The examination of the skeletons is beset with problems as well from irascible monks, not to mention the threat of attack from the criminals in the forest. Buried in an avalanche of dirt and locked in a flooding tunnel, even Rowley cannot save Adelia from the menace lurking in this place: “Something’s gone out of this place and something else has come in.”
From the puzzle of the bones to the mystery of Emma’s disappearance, Franklin’s novel is filled with scheming villains, distorted loyalties, buried secrets and a love that transcends the strictures of society. It appears, by the last page, that another adventure is on the way, Adelia watched by a patient adversary.