Clarkís medieval mystery is as dense as the English forests through which Hildegard, a nun, travels in 1382, as laden with plot and suspicion as the political climate during an era of the boy king Richard and two popes, Urban in Rome and Clement in Avignon. As well, the country is riven by dissent, burdensome taxation by country and church creating a tangible unrest among hardworking common folk.
In the midst of warring political and social factions, Hildegard leaves her convent home after seven years to journey to the Abbey of Meaux and her childhood home, Castle Hatton. She hopes to found a new religious house if she can obtain permission from the Abbot of Meaux, Hubert de Courcy.
Since the death of her beloved husband, Hildegard has embraced the religious life, prepared to spend the following years in prayer and service to the poor. But before Lord Roger de Hatton can even consider Hildegardís request or recommend a suitable property, Roger falls to the ground after a toast, sparking immediate rumors that he has been poisoned.
After the attack, the castle is in an uproar. Suddenly Hildegardís task has become more complicated. Joining with Rogerís steward, Ulf, she is charged with discovering the villain behind the attack on her friendís life. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of suspects in the castle, from Rogerís ostentatious and greedy young wife to his plotting brother-in-law and disowned son.
Overwhelmed by the changed circumstances of her visit, Hildegard is still anxious about the five hanged men she stumbled across in the forest on her way to Meaux, as well as a youth she discovered in the brush, his throat slashed. All of these bodies are savagely mutilated, but Hildegard has no knowledge of the dead menís crimes or identities. Everywhere she is surrounded by menace, citizens murmuring with discontent, calls for rebellion and the formation of secret alliances.
Throughout the country and at Hatton Castle blackguards abound, political opportunism threatening a world in flux, the young king Richard in the fifth year of his reign and both popes claiming to lead the Church. Unsure who she can trust, either at the castle or at de Courcyís abbey, Hildegard keeps her own counsel.
As Hildegard and Ulf tackle the thorny problem of Rogerís attack, a yeoman is slain, a titled woman carried off for ransom, a noble heir born, and a midwife gone missing as the assortment of characters at Hatton Castle reveal their true agendas. Permission for her priory must be suspended until a series of misadventures are dealt with, including an assault on Hildegard by a menacing stranger.
As the protagonist of the first of a series of medieval mysteries, Hildegard navigates below the radar, moving quietly from abbey to castle, with a network of friends and potential foes, an uncertain political climate, and a fascination with the man who might well be on the wrong side of the nunís best interests - Hubert de Courcy. Secret meetings, spies, plots against the crown and those with personal agendas set the stage for a country on the precipice of conflict.
Hildegard is perfectly positioned in this uncertain environment, quick-witted and intelligent, with a talent for the healing arts, a lively character to watch, the authorís evocative prose a joy to read. The next volume in the series is much anticipated.