Nicholas, now heir to the earldom, has no desire to marry his dead brother’s cast-off. And Emeline has no desire to marry the brutal monster who murdered his brother, the man she loved and hoped to marry.
This arranged marriage is a disaster, it would seem that it can’t get any worse. But it does. Fire rages through the castle and takes over the wedding night, and any hopes of reconciliation.
Not everything is as it seems though. Murder and arson are destroying more than one alliance, yet still the culprit is unknown.
But there are other matters to consider. It is 1484 and Richard III is England’s monarch. The king entrusts many of his lords with responsibilities in service of their country, Nicholas is charged with an undercover investigation into two desperate situations. Emeline joins with her younger sister and others of the household, determined to discover who is responsible for the disasters which have now entirely disrupted their lives. But the suspects are so many. It is therefore a group of eager but desperate women of various ages, characters and capabilities who attempt to solve the mystery.
Meanwhile, Nicholas learns that he has a wife to admire and adore. But is he a murderer? Is her mother? Her nurse? And will England’s political turmoil threaten their peace causing even greater uncertainty? Life will never be the same. But perhaps that is just as well.
Although there is often one principal source of inspiration for a book, there are always a thousand lesser threads that spin from unexpected conversations, nature, books, films and other areas. With The Flame Eater, it all came flooding in from the research which I was doing at the time. I love research and adore reading and studying new discoveries. Here, the research led me into the mixed benefits of arranged marriages, the spasmodic outbreaks of the plague and the surprising attempt of Henry Tudor, who was a comparatively unimportant exile in Brittany at the time, to make an advantageous marriage within the Herbert family, in-laws to the Earl of Northumberland.
Research absorbs me and brings the atmosphere of the late medieval closer. I once worked in the great library of the British Museum in London, and was fascinated by the original documents, parchments, maps and scrolls held there. Both the beauty and the dark problems of the past continue to haunt me, and this forms the basis of so much inspiration. I can close my eyes and wander those amazing shadows. I see the great castles, and I smell the fresh bread at the bakers, the blood in the gutters, the polluted rivers, the poverty and the wealth.
The Flame Eater also started with the main characters. My hero Nicholas was created considering the difficulties of a strong and intelligent man who has been tormented by his family for years. I decided that humour would be his defence. I also wanted a larger cast of female characters than usual, and wanted them highly individual and essential to the plot.
So this is a book based on larger than life personalities set against a multi-layered historical background.
But there’s also crime, and mystery, and... well, read it and see.
The curve of his thigh skimmed the melting candlewax. He sat amongst the platters, the rolling cups, the crumbs and scattered food, watching the reflections from the chandelier play along the polished pewter. He swung one leg, tapping his foot against the side of the table. His other foot rested on the body lying beneath.
A small flame hissed as the toppled candle stub extinguished in the spilled wine, for the table setting had been ruined in the struggle. Cold pork crackling and crumbled honey cakes lay strewn beneath the swing, swing, tap, tap of his foot, and the red wine puddled with the red blood, seeping to the edges of the rug.
The man stood eventually, looking down at the corpse as it sprawled, tongue protruding, eyes glazed. From the fallen wine jug, the trickling Burgundy dripped to the gaping mouth below. The man watched and smiled, but finally shrugged, clearing his thoughts of whimsy as he bent to finish his work and start the fire. As the first little flame rose amongst the piled napkins, the man turned and strode from the hall.
Outside the stars were singing. So he knew he had done the right thing.
They found his lordship’s charred remains within the hour. The messenger set off just minutes later, riding hard for the castle and his lordship’s father.
The curve of his thigh, sleek in fine grey wool, rested peacefully against the table, avoiding the mess of pottage. Another table; a far smaller table, gouged along its outer edge, one leg wedged with splintered willow chips to keep it stable, a smeared slime of onion and smashed turnip across its surface and the faint smell of smoked bacon rind. Another candle stub hissed, extinguished in thick trickling soup. The drip, drip of the sour green slid from the table to the ground where it was absorbed, not by the dry beaten earth but by the neat white apron of the woman lying there, her legs askew and her mouth slack lipped and open.
The body did not bleed, as the other had. Around the neck were black bruises, the marks of fingers, and the welts of a leather belt.
In the deepening shadows, the hearth was cold and no faggots were stacked. The cauldron hung empty, the poverty apparent. What food was now wasted, its spilled remains already congealed, was all there had been.
A chicken pecked at the woman’s outstretched hand, accustomed to more active fingers that scattered seed beneath the old table.
The man stood watching a moment. Then he buckled his belt back around his doublet, pulled it tight and readjusted the clip on his hat, flicking its small brim from his face. As he strode from the tiny dark chamber, he looked back once and smiled.
The fire he lit took hold almost at once, surging up the walls into the flimsy rafters, and sucking at the wattle, the daub and the thatch. Scarlet and gold roared upwards, gathering force and threatening the tenements close by.
The man was some distance away when the fire discovered the woman’s body, and claimed her grey frizzled hair, her careful little headdress, her outworn clothes and her tired old flesh.
Eyes down, feet together and hands clasped neatly in her lap as the low winter sun warmed the back of her neck, the young woman waited. Her mother said, “Look at me, Emeline. I want to make sure you are not glowering. And when you promise to obey me, as you certainly shall, I need to see the willing obedience in your expression.”
Emeline said, “You know I’ll obey you, Maman.”
“And don’t fidget with your fingers, Emma. Idle hands make for idle thoughts. It is high time you were married.”
She had not raised her chin, and still spoke to her fidgeting fingers. “But he is dead, Maman, as we all know.”
“Don’t be absurd, child,” said the baroness. “You understand me perfectly well and will now marry the wretched man’s brother, since your father has not the slightest intention of allowing all that tedious negotiation to be wasted. The families will be affiliated, whichever brother is the target. And since Nicholas is now heir to the title, it is him you shall have.”
The baroness’s eldest daughter sat in silence for a moment, her gaze studiously blank. Finally she mumbled, “But I hate him. Everybody hates him. Do you mean me to marry a murderer, Maman?” and then wished she had not said it.
The Baroness Wrotham was standing very straight in front of the vast fireplace, and as she drew herself straighter and taller, the wind whistled down the chimney and black smoke gusted out in a small ball of fury. “May the Lord forgive me,” said her ladyship, “if I strike you one day, Emma, but if you ever say such a thing in public, I will have your father thrash you again. No doubt once you are married, young Nicholas will beat you for me. Murder is a monstrous allegation, and is almost certainly untrue. At least – there is no legal accusation as yet. And you cannot possibly hate a man you have never even met. Besides, the deal is done and the bride price practically agreed. Our families will be properly aligned to the benefit of both, and you will prove yourself dignified and obedient while accepting your Papa’s decision with ladylike compliance. In other words, you will behave as you never have before.”
“Peter loathed his brother. He said Nicholas was deformed and mean spirited and lewd. He said Nicholas was sour as a quince and coarse as a bramble weed.”
The wind was rattling the casements and the little flames across the hearth flared and sank. The baroness had to raise her voice. “What has any of that to do with it? If you do not like the man once you marry him, you will allow a suitable period to pass, produce the obligatory two sons, and then refuse to admit him to your bed just as every other good woman in the land chooses to do with a husband she dislikes. I will hear no more, Emeline. The matter is settled.”
“He’s probably the sort of man who would try to force me.”
“Then good luck to him,” sighed her Maman. “If he ever manages to force you to do anything at all, I must ask him how he achieves it.”
“I liked Peter.”
“Then Peter should not have got himself killed. You may consider yourself remarkably fortunate to have been almost affianced to one man you imagined you liked, which is certainly more than ever happened to me. But since you were never wed to Peter, and the settlement was not even finalised, there is no difficulty in arranging your union with the brother. Not even a dispensation will be required.”
The sun had faded and now the wind was whistling outside. “Peter was murdered.”
The countess gathered up her short velvet train and tossed her small stiff headdress, preparing to march from the room “Peter – Peter – I am tired of hearing of a matter now quite inconsequential. His death was no doubt sheer carelessness. And if it wasn’t, then I am entirely uninterested. Your Papa would be very cross with you for questioning God’s will. And you know quite well how your Papa reacts when cross.”
“How can he know it’s God’s will for me to marry the wrong brother?”
“Your Papa knows everything,” murmured her mother. “The priest has never dared argue with him, and nor will you.”
Upstairs, Emeline recounted the conversation. She folded her arms across the warm window sill, rested her chin on her wrists and gazed out across the hedged garden, the wind-blown meadows and the Wolds beyond. Her sigh was heavy with regret at being both misunderstood and mistreated.
“I suppose I sympathise,” said Avice from the shadows of the bed curtains, “but if I were not your sister, I would say it was a very good match and you should be grateful. A castle, no less. His papa once sat on the Royal Council, so you’ll go to court with new gowns and drink from real gold and silver. I doubt Papa will ever find me an earl’s son. I shall probably get the seventeenth son of an alderman.”
“You can have my earl’s son.”
“Don’t be pouty, Emma. One day you’ll be a countess. And he’s rich. Richer even than Papa.” She cuddled up against her sister’s side of the bed, enjoying the softer, larger and grander pillows. “You’re not thinking of, disobeying, are you?”
“Don’t be silly. I just thought Maman would consider my feelings for once. Take my preferences , at least into account , and perhaps speak to Papa on my behalf.”
“What good would that do? Papa has never changed his mind about anything – at least, not since I was born. And anyway, you really liked Peter. You were so happy to marry him. The brother can’t be so different. And you’ll get a new gown for the wedding feast.”
Emeline sighed again. “You know exactly how it happened, Avice. Once Maman told me a match was being arranged for me with the heir to the Chatwyn title, I was honoured. Of course I was. Then I was introduced to Peter, and he was so handsome and charming. I just knew, right from the beginning, I was going to love my husband. So tall, and gallant and kind. But Peter talked a lot about his brother. He despised him.”
“Well,” said Avice, testing the bouncability of the mattress, “we shall meet this horrid creature next month and find out just what he’s like at last. Since we’re all invited to the castle, it will be six whole days and nights of incredible luxury and roast venison and new gowns and beeswax candles and real foreign wines and huge sugar subtleties and fur lined eiderdowns and all the things Papa won’t let us have.”
“With the wretched Nicholas paying court to me, and me having to be polite.”
“You can pull your fingers away, and simper. I always wanted an excuse to simper. But simpering at the swineherd’s son just somehow wouldn’t be worth it.”
“I’m more likely to spit,” said Emeline. She returned her gaze to the heather-pale hills on the horizon. “I wonder if Papa will make the horrid man accept a smaller dowry. Peter was hanging out for everything he could get. He admitted it. We used to laugh about it. I hope Papa makes Nicholas take a pittance.”
“It will be our Papa and his Papa,” Avice shook her head, “and nothing to do with anyone else.”
“I know.” Emeline slumped lower on the window seat. “But how can you bargain top price for a husband who is ugly and rude with a horrid temper and sinful habits?”
“And horns and a forked tongue? Wake up, Emma. His father’s an earl. Nicholas will be an earl. Earl’s always get what they want. Goodness knows if Nicholas actually wants you, but he’s going to get you anyway. And maybe a few sinful habits might be fun.”
The sleet angled sharply through the trees, turning the paths first to churned mud and then to ice, the ruts solidifying. The horses slipped and danced, pulled into snorting single file. Their breath steamed, their riders swore. The cart wheels leapt, axles groaning, hurtling Lady Wrotham from one cushion to another as she held onto her headdress and bit her tongue and wished she had chosen to ride. The litter’s low hooped confines swayed as the base planks rolled, the rain outside pelting against the waxed canvas and drowning out the neighing, the cursing and the sullen stamp and plod of hooves beyond.
Epiphany not long past, the January weather already smelled of snow. The small cavalcade was soaked, tabards and surcoats sodden, hats wilting over slumped shoulders, the horses’ bridles jingling and the wet reins squeaking between gloved fingers. Overhanging leaves collected the unrelenting torrents, then surrendered them, dumping sudden rivulets upon those riding below. The five men at arms had trotted a little ahead, clearing the way. Baron Wrotham, very stiff in the saddle, was followed closely by his two daughters and their ladies, braving the winter weather, flush faced and squint eyed in the cold. The clatter and slosh of the household trundled behind.
Four long days’ journey, two aching nights in small wayside taverns, and the main family stayed over for the third night at the Ragged Staff Inn on the road from Dorridge, buried their noses in hippocras and hot possets, were too wet, bad tempered and tired even to complain, then bundled their aching limbs between well warmed sheets and slept on past dawn the next day.
During the long night, the rain stopped. A brittle white sparkle tipped each scrubby blade of grass along the hedgerows for a bright frost and a clear sky lit the morning.
Six hours later they rode from the forest’s edge down into the wide valley’s cradle where the castle walls soared golden from their waters. The portcullis was raised, and the drawbridge lowered. A buzzard sat like a lone gargoyle on the battlements, peering below, picking her target.
A different day, a different place, but the curve of his thigh skimmed the deep stone window ledge, the elongated muscles enclosed in coarse brown wool, the swing of both legs out and over. Then the drop. Eight foot to the ground, landing light and lithe in the cobbled courtyard, adjusting, balancing, and pivoting for escape. A long fingered hand grasped a bundle of skirts – a man’s wrist pushing from the frilled cuff, the shift emerging half torn from the gown’s too tight neckline, the apron adrift, a man’s boots beneath the bedraggled hems. Masculine body, wide shouldered, long legged. Feminine clothes; the soft pink of a servant’s well-worn livery.
He did not suit his skirts. Not a convincing disguise but there should not have been anyone to see. Instead there was someone. The be-frocked gentleman turned his head, the straw hat darkening his face into shadow, and stared straight into the young woman’s startled gasp. He grinned, shrugging, gathered his skirts up again and without a word strode off towards the stables.
She watched him go. Too brazen for a thief, too assured for a scullion, the Lady Emeline wondered who, in this castle of grandeur and disdain, dared prance in borrowed clothes, play the fool, and climb from windows. She had seen little of him, and more of his legs than his face, but thought she would recognise him if seen again. The profile had seemed elegant in its shadows beneath the absurd maiden’s bonnet. But then he had turned his head. She had seen the flash of sky-blue eyes, but also the pitted crevice of a scar slashing from lower lid to earlobe and dividing the flesh, a rut as deep, it seemed, as that along the winter paths. One blue eye was part drowned in iced milk. A disfigurement that, even from the shadows, marked a face as forever memorable.
“My son,” said the earl, “apologies for his absence. Unavoidably called away. Sadly, since my elder son’s death, the estate claims more of our time than we’d like, and Nicholas – well, Nicholas is Nicholas. I trust he’ll return – eventually.”
There was the very best Trebbiano, the sweeter Malmsey for the ladies, tansy cakes and candied raisins soaked in honey displayed on silver platters. Refreshments were served in the great hall, draughts retreating behind the thick tapestries, the fire blazing on a hearth almost as wide as the road from the forest to the drawbridge. It was a great carmine splendour. It also smoked and smelled of soot.
Baron Wrotham looked down his nose. “Your courtesy is much appreciated, my lord,” he said and did not look as though he meant it.
The earl waved long plump fingers. “You’ll be tired. The journey – the unpleasant weather – the roads were at least passable, I see. Good, good. You’ll be needing to rest, of course. You’ll be shown to your quarters.”
Her Ladyship tottered upright and curtsied. Her legs barely held her and she wished indeed to rest. She took her elder daughter’s arm, and, effectively dismissed, they followed the bowing steward from the hall. Avice scuttled behind them. His Lordship the baron remained. He had a great deal to say. It was some considerable time before he took to his bed.
But Emeline had very little to say before closing her eyes. The bed was wide and warm and soft but being squashed between her mother and her little sister, she was less comfortable than she had expected. Waiting until she heard her mother’s gentle snores, she then quickly mumbled into Avice’s ear. “I’ve no doubt the wretched Nicholas was sulking in his bedchamber. Scared of meeting me because I know he murdered his brother.”
Avice sniffed, avoiding the sudden movement of elbows. “How does he know you know? And how do you know he knows you know? And if he’s wicked, he won’t care what you know. Wicked people don’t sulk. I sulk. You sulk. He wouldn’t.”
“I don’t sulk.”
“You’re sulking now just because your beastly betrothed isn’t showing the slightest desire even to see what you look like.”
“Go to sleep,” said Emeline.