The Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul accepts the gift of a field, and has it ploughed for planting. When the plough turns at the end of a row, it's stopped by something under the ground; and that something turns out to be the rotted clothing, and a long tress of black hair, from a buried body. Who was this woman who lies secretly in unhallowed ground? Was she murdered, as seems all too likely? Brother Ruald once owned this field, before the potter answered his late-in-life call to the cloister and left his wife in possession of his property. After which the woman, embittered at Ruald for abandoning her and declaring to anyone who would listen that she had since found a more discerning lover, vanished. She had long black hair - but so, of course, do many women. The body has been buried long enough so little is left but clothing, hair, and bone, so even Ruald cannot say whether or not it is that of his wife.
Meanwhile, as Lord Sheriff Hugh Beringar gathers his company and responds to King Stephen's call to battle in the civil war tearing at nearby East Anglia, a young man makes his way home on foot from an abbey that the war has laid waste. Sulien abruptly left his noble family after his father died in one of King Stephen's battles, and during the year since then he has completed his time as a novice. Now he must either make his final Benedictine vows, or decide his vocation was false and return to his life in the world. Sulien grew up as the frequent and welcome guest of Ruald and his childless wife at their cottage. When he learns that Ruald is under suspicion of murder after the discovery of a woman's body in the potter's field, Sulien tells Abbot Radulphus that he knows Ruald's estranged wife to be alive and well elsewhere. Brother Cadfael finds that story hard to believe, but he cannot believe, either, that Sulien killed the woman; nor can he believe Ruald is guilty. So Cadfael launches his own investigation into the matter, with the blessing of his abbot and without the usual assistance from his good friend the Lord Sheriff.
This seventeenth book in the Cadfael series works well as both mystery and character study, and it's also a fine historical novel. I especially enjoyed the "elderly" (for the era, not if she were living now) female character, Donata, who is Sulien's mother. Slowly dying from a painful illness, Donata resents the well intended protection laid around her by her elder son and his bride, and Cadfael - himself no longer young - understands that the strength of her character far exceeds that of her body. How Donata deals with being kept in ignorance, and therefore diminished, delighted me just as much as it did the herbalist monk. A really good read!
--Reviewed by Nina M. Osier, author of 2005 science fiction EPPIE winner "Regs"