Richard Blackburn was born in England during the Second World War. He grew up in a house built on the site of a 12th Century castle and later lived a few kilometres from Dover Castle. This gave him a strong interest in Medieval History.
Richard emigrated to Australia at the age of 20 and worked at first as a bookkeeper on a cattle station to the north of the Simpson Desert. He then moved to Darwin and worked as an internal auditor in the Health Department, travelling extensively around the Northern Territory. Finding the ‘Top End’ lacking in challenge, he moved on to Papua New Guinea where he worked for thirteen years among the people, as a District Officer.
Since returning to Australia he gained his degree in Information Technology and has worked for a number of Government Departments. His interests outside work are now restricted to his family and scuba diving. He had to give up parachuting and long-distance running due to a back injury and now has to be content to leave the real excitement to characters in his stories. For this book and The Gatekeeper, Richard draws on his interests in the Medieval History as well as his experiences living in New Guinea villages, in conditions not unlike those of the peasants in England during the fourteenth century.
Jenny’s blood froze. What was that? A muffled footstep? She strained her ears but all she could hear was the distant rumble of a building storm.
Could somebody have followed her? No chance! She’d been meticulous. More like the stress of the past month had finally got to her.
Wait! There it was again.
Controlling her growing panic, she slipped quietly behind one of the towering columns. She was alone and frightened. In the darkness, this site of untold ancient ritual was steeped in latent menace. She backed further into the deep shadows and pulled her hooded cloak close around her. She blended in perfectly. All her clothes were drab and old. Very, very old.
After what seemed like an eternity, she could stand the tension no longer. Maybe I can sneak a look, she thought, inching slightly forward. She moved silently. She mustn’t be caught. Her quest was too important to fail just because she’d broken the law.
Nothing happened until she edged that little bit further …
‘Got you!’ A voice seemed to come out of nowhere.
Jenny swirled around. She automatically dropped into a defensive karate stance, her hands in front of her face, fingers flat, ready to strike.
‘Who …?’ The moment she saw her pursuer, relief swept through her. She relaxed her guard. ‘Gwenelda! Don’t ever creep up on me like that.’
The old woman seemed unconcerned. ‘I just wanted to test your reflexes,’ she said nonchalantly.
‘You’re lucky I didn’t strike first and ask questions later,’ Jenny grumbled. ‘Anyway, how did you guess I’d come back here?’ she asked nervously, her throat now dry with anticipation.
‘I’ve known since you arrived in the area, four weeks ago. I’ve watched you trespassing here every day just before dawn. I know what you want but I have to be sure of your motives. I thought I’d give you time to rethink your decision. If you’d been at all unsure, you wouldn’t have waited this long.’
Jenny nodded. She had been tempted. Every ounce of her logic told her she was crazy. But in her heart she knew she would have to make the perilous journey.
‘What I’m not sure of,’ Gwenelda’s voice broke into her friend’s worried thoughts, ‘is why?’
‘Surely that’s obvious,’ Jenny replied with passion. ‘Back there it’s July 1348. In August the plague will have taken a death-hold on the seaports and will gradually spread devastation through the country.’ Jenny’s voice was nearing desperation pitch. ‘My friends are going to be in dreadful danger. They might die!’
‘Shhh! Calm down. There’s nothing you can do, is there. You can’t take anything from this century to help them. You can’t even tell them how the disease is spread.’
‘I know, but I’m sure I can save them, even on those terms.’ Jenny grabbed Gwenelda’s arm in her urgency. ‘It should only take me a few weeks, max! I’ll be in and out in no time. Let me at least try. Please!’
The old Gatekeeper was not quite ready to make a decision. She sighed deeply.
‘It’s not that easy, you realise. The way you left them last year, they think you were burnt to death by a warlock’s lightning bolt. They’ll be suspicious.’
‘But you’ll know what to do. If you weren’t prepared to help me, you wouldn’t be here now.’
Gwenelda nodded sagely. Even though her young friend could not dream what was ahead of her if she became a Gatekeeper, the old woman was sure she had the guts to see it through.
‘This is all very irregular, you know. My seniors have left it up to me to decide but they’re not totally convinced. “A neophyte must undertake a substantial apprenticeship …” they keep telling me.’ The old woman pursed her lips and thought for a few seconds more before taking the final step. ‘Never mind, there’s no time to prepare you now. Dawn is upon us. Take my hand as I repeat the solemn incantation: “We, the remaining Druids on this Earth …”.’
The words filled Jenny with dread. She felt herself flying through the ages, spinning through time. Again she was terrified. She heard herself scream then suddenly she was there, nearly seven hundred years in the past.
During the next two weeks Jenny was subjected to a transformation. The deprivation and hardship weren’t pleasant.
‘We must have you looking like a young man who’s been held captive by an evil sorcerer,’ Gwenelda explained as she plastered mud over her young student’s head.
The Middle Ages was definitely not the time for a woman to be found travelling on her own. Without family or friends to fight for her, she would not last long. Last time Jenny was here the trick had worked. Disguised as ‘Sir John’ she’d been accepted without question. She hoped it would work as well this time, but she was not too happy about the extra decoration being applied.
‘Ouch, don’t pull my hair out!’
‘It’s got to look authentic.’
‘It won’t if I’m bald!’
Jenny chanced a look up at her tormentor. ‘You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?’ she said angrily.
Gwenelda quickly stopped smiling. ‘No, no. Of course not,’ she said in an unconvincing voice.
‘And you’re getting my clothes messed up, too. They’ll stink to high heaven.’ Jenny tried to rub the spots of dirt off her old and worn cotehardie but to no avail. ‘I don’t mind looking a mess if I really have to, but I’ve got mud running into my hose. Can’t I wear modern stockings? I can never get these things tight enough at the top using the stupid hose points.’
‘No, grumpy, you can’t wear modern anything. You really amuse me! I thought you wanted to come back here but all I’ve heard since we arrived is complaints.’
‘I wanted to come back, yes. But I didn’t expect this treatment. Hold on. Oh yuck!’
‘What’s the matter now?’ Gwenelda asked with a patient sigh.
‘It’s started dribbling into my codpiece.’
‘Well then, you won’t need so much padding down there. Now, stand up … excellent! You look just right.’
‘For what?’ Jenny asked sourly.
‘For the performance of your life,’ she was told.
The old Gatekeeper explained the act Jenny would have to perform to enter the villagers’ world again. It had to be practised to perfection. She would only have one chance, so she had to get it right first time.
When Gwenelda was satisfied with her handiwork, she returned to Oaklea village to make ready for the harvest festival. It had always been an important day for the Church, especially in rural areas, and here on the edge of Salisbury Plain life was as far from any large town as you could get. Even so, it would have surprised a stranger to see the size of the crowd in the village square. Everybody was there because they’d been given the day off work for this special event. They were ready to converge upon the little Abbey at Glenhaven Castle to decorate it ready for the weekend. Everything had to be exactly right because, this Sunday, the Bishop of Salisbury was attending the service.
At the allotted time, Brother Barnabas led the procession out of the village and through the forest. The long snake of humanity represented a cross-section of the local population: tradesmen, craftsmen, peasants and a small number of yeomen from nearby hamlets. Children played their simple games as they ambled along. This was a happy celebration … until Jenny turned up, that is.
The crowd had just turned a corner in the winding track that brought them to the top of a wide, open area in front of the picturesque little castle. Close to their left was a vast expanse of forest that stank of rotting vegetation. This was a wilderness bordering the north bank of the river. It was mainly swampland, the home of lepers, thieves, escaped slaves and the dregs of this intolerant society. Here they eked out a meagre existence, preying on the unwary. Murder was not an uncommon end for any unfortunate who wandered unwittingly into these dangerous marshes.
When the path came closest to this dreadful area, the crowd became silent. Most of the older peasants crossed themselves; they had known of people who had entered these forbidden tracts never to return.
Everything now was very hushed, when suddenly an anguished voice cut through the air. ‘Help me! For Heaven’s sake, help me!’
To everybody’s horror a dripping, bedraggled form staggered from the swamp.
‘Holy man, bring grace to a soul that has been tortured in the fire of Hell itself!’
The crowd scattered. Women grasped their children tightly, shielding them from this dreadful apparition. Men unsheathed their knives and a forester fumbled to fit an arrow to his bow.
‘I’ll ’av it,’ he shouted, but the monk held back the man’s arm.
‘Keep me covered,’ he told the archer. ‘But don’t shoot unless I’ve already been killed.’
As the villagers watched in awe, Brother Barnabas walked slowly and unsteadily toward the creature that had collapsed on the ground twenty metres in front of him. It had the shape and muddied clothes of a young man. Its hair was matted with filth from the swamp and its fingernails were broken and cracked from the harsh life of a renegade. Its face looked drawn, as though from constant fear and hunger, but there was something different about the features, something that struck a faint memory.
‘Bless me, Brother Barnabas, or the Devil will drag me back and I’ll be lost forever.’
As the old man mumbled the words of a prayer that would save this wretch from such a dire fate, Jenny unwound herself from the tortured position she’d adopted. She slowly struggled to her feet. To the gasps of the villagers, she straightened her back and stood upright in front of them.
‘It’s a man,’ a voice from the crowd declared.
‘It’s Sir John!’ a young girl added excitedly.
‘It is, Betty! It is!’ Brother Barnabas acknowledged with a gasp.
The villagers crowded behind the churchman but they didn’t dare approach further. It was Betty who showed the most bravery and emotion. She threw her arms around Jenny and wept happy tears. She was overwhelmed with joy.
Gwenelda now walked from the back of the crowd and took control. ‘We must get him to Glenhaven quickly,’ she advised. ‘The Bishop wanted him as a personal servant before the evil magician took him. I’m not sure if Sir John will even remember him now, but His Grace will certainly not recognise Sir John if we don’t get him cleaned up.’ She turned to the young girl. ‘Betty, you were this knight’s squire before he was taken from us. Can you help him again?’
Betty was delighted. She looked into her friend’s unfocused eyes and whispered, ‘Jenny! Jenny! Can you ’ear me?’
Jenny looked about as though she’d just woken from a dream. ‘Where am I? I know some of you, but I don’t remember what has happened to me.’
After Jenny had bathed and changed, she was ushered into the presence of the Bishop. He was suitably horrified by the tale of his servant’s ordeals. While he definitely didn’t want to be closely associated with someone who’d been so near to the gates of Hell itself, when he questioned Jenny, he found her brain to be as sharp as it had ever been. With her ability to calculate, read and write, he would be able to entrust her with overseeing the finances of Glenhaven Abbey. The Holy Spring, reportedly smitten from the living rock by Saint Thomas a’Becket, was attracting more and wealthier pilgrims and the windfall had to be garnered efficiently.
Brother Barnabas was not as enthusiastic about the financial aspects of the shrine as his spiritual leader would have liked. He was glad to be rid of that side of the work. For Jenny, however, it was exactly the break she’d been hoping for.
 The Plague is also known as the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death and, in those days, as the Great Mortality. It is the subject of the nursery rhyme, ‘Ring a ring o’ rosies …’ because of the circular, rose-coloured rash on the skin, the fact that victims of the disease sneezed (that’s why we say God bless you when someone sneezes) and eventually fell down – dead. A lovely subject for a nursery rhyme, don’t you think? But it is of interest to this book in that it mentions ‘a pocket full of posies’ (herbs). There were many so-called cures for the disease and one was to carry herbs around. If the bouquet included tansie, as you will see later, it might have worked.
 A cotehardie was a type of tunic, belted either round the waist or low on the hips. Short cotehardies, like Jenny’s, came halfway down the thigh and had ‘hose points’ inside, to hold up the hose (stockings). There was no elastic in those days so the fit was not very tight.
 A codpiece was a flap in the front of a man’s tight-fitting hose or breeches. It was necessary in a time when there were no zips!
 Everybody in those times carried a knife. Forks were not used for eating and knives were not put out on the table as they are today. Everybody used their own. Also, peasants would use a knife on a daily basis in their manual labours. So the idea sometimes espoused, that old paintings show how troubled the times were just because everyone wore a knife on their belt, is not necessarily correct.
 Thomas a’Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in his cathedral in 1170. After his death several miracles where reported to have occurred on the tomb of the martyr and he was canonised in 1173 by Pope Alexander III.
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