If you're interested in an audio edition, check that you're getting the unabridged recording narrated by Stephen Thorne. If you're interested in the Derek Jacobi video, I warn you that the BBC rewrote the backstory of both Judith and Niall to make them more melodramatic; as compensation, they came up with one additional clever ploy on the part of the murderer that's worth seeing.
This May of 1142, spring has begun late; winter's prolonged grip has been reflected in human affairs. King Stephen, freed by a prisoner exchange after _The Pilgrim of Hate_, raised the Empress' hopes by falling ill, but her move to Oxford was premature; he's now in fine fettle, picking off the empress' outposts. While these events, and the war at large, have little effect on this story, they'll be relevant in the next book, _The Hermit of Eyton Forest_. Cadfael's worries are more immediate, but easing now that the crops have finally been sown and it looks as though the roses will be out by the 22nd of June, the feast of St. Winifred's translation.
The Widow Perle - 25-year-old Judith Vestier that was - lost her husband to a terrible fever four years ago, despite everything Cadfael could do, then lost her only child in miscarriage shortly thereafter. In the depths of her grief, she couldn't bear to stay in the house where they'd been happy, so she deeded the place to the abbey in exchange for an annual rent of one white rose from her favorite rosebush, to be paid into her hand each June 22nd. (As heiress to the Vestier clothier business, Judith has ample property even without the house; she moved in 'over her shop', as it were, with her widowed aunt and her cousin Miles.)
Since it pays for the lighting of Mary's altar all year around, brother Eluric - the altar's custodian - has always delivered the rent, but this year brings a small crisis. Eluric, given as an oblate to the abbey as a young child, grew up in the cloister; his annual meetings with Judith have been his first prolonged exposure to any woman. Despite his overly sensitive conscience, the inevitable happened, and he's asked Radulfus to relieve him of the duty since he can't help worshipping Judith from afar. Radulfus, not wanting to embarrass the boy publicly or to have a repetition in a few years' time, consults Cadfael and Anselm; Cadfael suggests that the abbey's tenant, Niall Bronzesmith, deliver the rent directly. After all, he's a widower and a decent man...
Unfortunately, other men of Shrewsbury aren't as innocent as Eluric or as decent as Niall, and seek Judith's hand in marriage for mercenary purposes. Godfrey Fuller, whose business complements Judith's very well, proposes marriage as a business proposition. Her chief weaver, Bertred, has an eye out for advancement. Even ne'er-do-well Vivian Hynde is trying to turn his charm into a soft spot for life. Small wonder that Judith has thoughts of the cloister - or that her aunt is gently nudging her in that direction. Both Cadfael and Sister Magdalen advise Judith against it, although from rather different points of view. :)
Then Brother Eluric is found dead in Niall's garden - not a suicide, as the brothers at first fear, but murdered, stabbed by someone who tried and failed to cut the rosebush down with a hatchet. Judith, calling on Niall to pick up a belt buckle he'd repaired for her, stumbles upon the scene - and when Cadfael tells her why Eluric crept out to see the rosebush one last time, she feels guilty that he suffered so much and she never noticed. Turning it over in her mind, she resolves to go to the abbey in the morning and make the house an outright gift - but the word gets out from her servants' gossip, and the next morning she's kidnapped, by someone who'd rather take a chance on forcing her into a marriage and getting *all* her property instead of only half. (Her cousin Miles is beside himself - getting a new boss like *that* isn't something anyone would want, even without a cousin's safety to worry about.)
My compliments to any reader who deduces what happened to Judith before Peters reveals the solution. Eluric's murder - and another later on - are fair puzzles. (Ever the forensics expert, Cadfael takes a wax impression of a distinctive footprint from the damp earth beside the rosebush, to give the town cobblers a chance of catching Eluric's murderer by the heel, for instance.) Niall Bronzesmith, quiet as he is, has problems of his own; after his wife's death in childbirth, he fostered their daughter with his sister Cecily's cheerful family outside town, since he couldn't take care of a small baby alone, although he loves her very much. She's too little to understand why he only comes for frequent visits, and he needs to arrange to bring her back to live with him before she starts thinking he doesn't want her.