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A Mortal Bane

A Mortal Bane by roberta gellis
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Magdalene la Bâtarde was madam of the Old Priory Guesthouse in Southwark, where Baldassare, the messenger, was murdered. Sir Bellamy of Itchen, a most trusted knight, was sent to investigate who killed Baldassare, and why. Failing to succeed, Sir Bellamy could see the beautiful and mysterious Magdalene hanged for a crime she did not commit. Medieval Mystery by Roberta Gellis; originally published by Tor

Belgrave House; September 1999
ISBN 9781610846516
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Title: A Mortal Bane
Author: roberta gellis

19 April 1139
St. Mary Overy

Only a thread of moon remained, and the hair-thin crescent cast no light on the path. That made no difference to the blind woman whose staff swept back and forth, pausing infinitesimally as it touched the grass verge on either side. She knew the way so well that she could have trod it easily without the staff, but the sturdy oak rod gave her confidence. There was little protection for a whore, especially a blind one, in London in the year of Our Lord 1139, and she could wield the staff quite effectively against anyone who came close enough to strike her or seize her. She was not afraid now, however. The path between the Old Priory Guesthouse, where she plied her trade, and the church to which it had once belonged was through a walled garden.

The next sweep of her staff scraped gently on a hard surface. The blind woman pulled the staff back toward her, took another careful step, and stretched her hand toward the gate that opened the wall between the garden and the churchyard. The latch lifted; she went through and continued up the path until the staff touched the verge more quickly on the left than on the right. That was where the walk turned around the apse of the church. The blind woman adjusted her direction, took another step.

“Who is there?”

She stopped abruptly, recognizing the voice of the sacristan of the priory and knowing he would not welcome her, an excommunicate whore, into the church. In the next moment her keen ears picked up a soft thump and then the sound of running feet. She stood where she was quietly, her lips curved into a gentle, amused smile because she was sure the monk had come across a young couple sheltering in the dark of the porch for a caress or two. She listened intently for the footsteps of the sacristan pursuing them, but she heard nothing except the soft sound of the door closing.

After a while she started forward again. Either the sacristan had gone back through the church, intending to catch the intruders as they came around to the front, or he felt he had startled the pair enough to discourage them and had gone into the monastery. It would be safe for her to go into the church now and pray for a little while. Priests said she must give up the life she led before God would listen to her prayers, but that made no sense at all. For what could she pray, born without eyes as she was, except not to starve—and was that not why she whored? Better to go on whoring and pray for forgiveness.

The path turned again, more abruptly, and the staff scraped against another hard surface—the first step to the north porch of the church. She brought her foot to the staff, mounted the step, mounted the next, and brought the staff forward to judge whether she was clear of the wall of the porch. The staff did not touch the stone step. It did not swing freely. There was something large and soft lying on the porch. The blind woman drew in a sharp breath, recalling the thud she had heard and that she had heard only one set of footsteps running. Could the meeting have been for a purpose less innocent than a kiss? Could the sacristan, who had a sour temper, have struck one of the young people without realizing he had caused serious harm?

The blind woman knelt, felt immediately that it was indeed a person lying on the porch floor, slid her hand toward a shoulder gently, intending to help the person up…and froze. Surely her sensitive fingers knew that cloth, the embroidery on that tunic. Holding her breath, she brought her hand up, touched thick, curly hair, a shaven cheek, a long, fine nose, lips…oh, yes, she knew those lips! Shaking now, she reached out to turn the face more toward her and her hand struck what did not belong, could not possibly be part of the man or his clothing. The breath she had held quavered out in a low, terrified whimper.

A knife hilt! And around it, something wet, sticky. The odor struck her now. Blood. He was covered with blood. He was dead! She did not dare cry aloud. Oh, God, if he was dead, she was dead also. Who would believe that she had not quarreled with him, buried a knife in him? She rose to run, but her feet were tangled. Then she would have screamed had not her throat been locked with terror, until she realized it was her own staff across her feet. She snatched it up and fled.

Chapter 1

19 April 1139
Priory Guesthouse

Magdalene la Bâtarde, whoremistress, she who had been Arabel de St. Foi until her husband died of a knife in the heart and she had fled before she was accused of murder, lifted her head and looked away from her embroidery frame. The bell at the gate in the wall had sounded faintly through closed doors and windows. She frowned. From the color of the light making the oiled parchment in the window glow, it was nearly sunset. All her clients were already in the house and in the beds of the women with whom they had appointments.

She sat still a moment longer. The Old Priory Guesthouse was not a place where men came casually from the street. But when the bell sounded again, she shrugged and rose. It might be a messenger, or a client who had a sudden need and intended to stay the night. Money was money and every silver penny might be important. Nonetheless, she was anxious, and she thought again as she went to the gate that she should hire a man or a boy to open gates and run errands. As she lifted the latch, she sighed. She could afford that now, since most of her clients were men of wealth or importance and they preferred to be known to as few as possible.

She was shocked to discover that the man at the gate was no common messenger and that she had never seen his face before. Although she kept her expression calm, Magdalene could feel the blood beating in her throat. Anyone recommended to her house would have been told that an appointment was necessary, and hers was no common whorehouse and was not marked in any way to attract passersby. Strangers, who did not know she had powerful protectors, were dangerous. Her fear was diminished, however, when she saw that the man looked more shocked than she felt.

“Who are you?” he asked.

The French he spoke was good, but the accent was not that of France or of England. Magdalene drew an easier breath. Either this was a traveler honestly lost or someone had deliberately sent him here to embarrass him. A mistake or a joke, Magdalene thought, divided between irritation and amusement. Some men never grew up and thought it great fun to send innocent foreigners to her costly whorehouse. Well, it was not this poor man’s fault.

“I am Magdalene la Bâtarde,” she said. “And this is the Old Priory Guesthouse.” But she had been examining his horse, a well-kept, handsome animal, and his cloak, which, although a sober dark gray, was of exceptionally fine cloth, lined with fur and richly embroidered. The purse at his waist seemed plump, and she suspected there was a large pouch suspended from a strap across his breast, but it was pushed to his back where the cloak hid it. “Please come in,” she added, pulling the gate open wider and stepping back. “If you are lost, I can set you on your way, and if you desire rest or entertainment, I can provide that also.”

“The Old Priory Guesthouse?” he repeated as he led his horse in. “Is that not the church of St. Mary Overy? I was told one could see it from the foot of London Bridge and that the Bishop of Winchester’s house was behind the church.”

Magdalene frowned and her full, beautifully shaped lips thinned. “Someone has a strange sense of humor—or wishes to besmirch Henry of Winchester’s reputation. It is true the Bishop of Winchester owns this house, but he has never personally set foot in it. The Bishop of Winchester’s local dwelling faces the front gate of the priory.”

A wary expression had widened the stranger’s large, dark eyes and tightened the corners of his mouth as she spoke, but his face cleared and he laughed when she came to the last sentence. “Ah,” he said, “that was how the confusion came about. My traveling companion told me that the bishop’s house was behind the church and, if one rides across the bridge, a house at the front of the priory would look to be behind the church.”

“That is possible, I suppose,” Magdalene said, and shivered suddenly. She had come out without a cloak because she expected to do no more than take a message from someone’s hand or let a client in. She had thought she would be able to scold the client in comfort by the fire while he waited for one of her women to be free. “If you like,” she went on, huddling her arms around herself, “I will send my servant to guide you to the bishop’s house, but she is rather deaf and it will take me a few moments to make what I want clear. You may wait here if you prefer, or you may come in.” She smiled. “I assure you this is not the kind of place where men are seized upon and robbed or forced to stay.”

He laughed again at that. “With a face like yours, madame, I should think you would have more trouble driving men away than keeping them.”

“I thank you,” she said stiffly, stepping aside so he could lead the horse past her, “but I no longer take clients. And there is no one free to serve you at the moment. You would have to wait—”

Illumination and amusement changed his expression again. “Ah, it is a special kind of guesthouse. I understand.” He laughed again. “That is why you thought my friend might be trying to besmirch the bishop’s reputation.” He hesitated and frowned, glancing up at the church spire. “How close the church looks. Is there a short way to reach it from here?”

“Yes, there is,” Magdalene replied. “But I do not like to stand at the gate as if I were soliciting custom. Let me fetch my servant if you do not wish to come in.”

“I will come in,” he said, his expression thoughtful. “Where do I leave my horse?”

“In the stable.” Magdalene gestured to the right, where a well-built stable was backed against the stone wall that encircled the house. “I am sorry there is no one to help you, but I have no manservants. Our clients prefer to do for themselves. The door of the house is open. Just walk in when you have settled the horse.”

He set off, and Magdalene closed and latched the gate. She glanced once toward the stable and then hurried back into the house. Inside, she walked to the fire in the hearth on the west wall and stood beside it looking into the flames as she considered the stranger. She then sat down on a stool, turning her embroidery frame so she could face the door. She had not yet pulled her needle from the cloth where she had set it before rising to open the gate, when the man came in. He stared around at the room, surprise plain in his face.

Magdalene suppressed a smile as she rose and asked if she could take his cloak. Most of her clients had been using her facilities for years; they were familiar with and accepted the comfortable appearance of a family solar. It was not until someone new entered and registered amazement that there were not pallets in the corners with grunting couples on them, or near-naked women sitting or lying about, that Magdalene was reminded of how different her house was from the usual kind of stew. After a second glance around, the man undid the handsome brooch and handed her his cloak, which she laid on a chest under the window.

“I have just bethought me,” he said, “that Richard de Beaumeis did not say this was the Bishop of Winchester’s house. He called it the Bishop of Winchester’s inn.”

“Richard de Beaumeis!” Magdalene repeated, beginning to laugh as she returned to her seat. “Oh, that wicked young man. It was pure mischief to send you here with that explanation. Richard de Beaumeis attended school in the priory, and he knows very well what kind of guesthouse this is. He has availed himself often enough of our Ella’s company.”

The man laughed also. “He told me that he had attended the priory school. He said nothing of the extracurricular activities he enjoyed.”

“Naughty!” Magdalene sighed. “He has an antic sense of humor I never suspected, but I fear he has done you an ill turn. There is no decent inn to which I can recommend you on this side of the river. Of course, if you do not mind the plain food, the prayers, and the early hours, you may ask for lodging in the true priory guesthouse” —she smiled and shook her head— “which is now on the grounds of the priory. Or, if you have business with the Bishop of Winchester, who is in residence just now, I am sure you will be made welcome—”

“No,” he said, “I have no business with the bishop, but I do have an appointment for a meeting on this side of the river, not far from here, around Compline. So, if you will have me, I think I will stay here.”

“We are rather costly, I am afraid,” Magdalene said. Her guest shrugged and waved a hand at the surroundings. His appreciative glance took in the floor bestrewn with clean, sweet-smelling rushes, the scrubbed table with a long bench on each side and two short ones at head and foot, the grouping of stools near the hearth, one with a lute on it and the two others with sewing baskets beside them. At the north end of the room there was an open corridor, and on the wall at each side, a set of shelves holding pewter and wooden platters and cups and some drinking horns. The lowest shelves held several large hard-leather vessels and sealed crocks.

“I had expected that,” he said. “But I will want to stay the entire night, since I have no place else to sleep.”

“You will be welcome to stay. I must lock the house and outer gate at dark, but your woman will let you out and wait to let you in again.” She rose to her feet and gestured to the group of stools. “Please, do sit down. We do not serve meals unless they are specially ordered ahead of time, but I can give you wine, or beer, and bread and cheese, possibly a slice of pasty or some cold meat if you are hungry. I must see what is in the kitchen.”

“Wine, if you please,” he said, clearly restraining a shudder at the thought of ale or beer.

Magdalene smiled and fetched a pair of stemmed pewter drinking cups from the shelf. Having set them on the table, she filled them from a polished pitcher and brought the cups back. She was amused again when the man sipped gingerly, as if he expected something unpleasant, then smiled and drank more deeply. It was good wine, she knew. It was supplied by William of Ypres, leader of all of the king’s mercenary troops. Lord William had been her patron and protector for almost ten years and had uses for her house that had little to do with her skill and beauty or that of her women.

For that matter, most of her regular clients supplied their own wine, which was stored in the guesthouse cellar, each cask marked with a sign only she and her women would associate with the owner. William, because of those other purposes, sent more than he would ever drink, and some was for her own use. It was from that store that she had drawn the pitcher earlier in the day, so she felt free to offer it.

“Something to eat?” she asked.

“I thank you, no. I had my dinner at a friend’s house not long before I arrived here. The wine is very good.”

“A gift from a friend,” she said.

Plainly, this client was not prepared to tell her his name or anything more than that he had come from somewhere in or around London. She had answered as she did, also naming no names, to indicate that she could be trusted, but she did not mind that he did not respond. If he came again, he would learn that secrets were generally kept quite secure by the women of the Old Priory Guesthouse. However, Magdalene had the feeling that this man was not settling in England. He had an air of “passing through” about him.

“We have been having a pleasant spring,” she said, setting her cup down on the floor beside her and looking at the design she was embroidering.

“It is colder than I like,” the man replied agreeably, resting his cup on his knee and smiling at her. “London never changes, though. Each time I come, I am surprised to find it just the same. It seems to me so large and busy a city would change more.”

“Perhaps you do not notice the changes because it is so large and busy. For example, if a street changed from housing pepperers to housing mercers, likely it would look much the same to a passerby.”

As she spoke, Magdalene rapidly made the tiny chain stitches that outlined a leaf and then began to fill it with green silk. If it had been larger, she would have chosen a darker green for the central vein and a medium color between that and the leaf itself for the smaller veins. As it was only one of many similar very small leaves on a tree, she did not trouble. Thin as her needle was and fine as her thread, there was no room for greater detail.

“I suppose you are right,” he replied and then leaned forward. “That is very fine work you do.”

“We are recorded as a house of needle workers,” Magdalene said with a smile. “That is less out of any desire to deceive than to escape having to mark the house as a stew. And that is to avoid men walking in from the street, expecting to be serviced and disturbing our clients. When a man has paid five good silver pennies for his pleasure, he does not expect to be rushed, annoyed by noise, or suffer any inconvenience.”

The guest whistled and shook his head. “I should think not. You told me you were costly, but five pence….”

“That includes lodging for the night, stabling and feed for your horse, and such an evening meal and breakfast as we ourselves take, but if the price is too much, please accept the wine as a friendly gesture, warm yourself, and go free as you came. The priory is close, will lodge you safe, and is very easy to find. Just ride down the road to the first turning to the right. Take that until you come to another turning to the right. Take that and in a few yards, you will see the gate.”

He laughed aloud. “You do not chaffer over your goods? Ah, well, you cannot blame a man for trying. No, it is not too much. I will stay.”

“I do not wish to be rude,” Magdalene said with an apologetic smile, “but you are plainly not a resident of Southwark or of London. I am afraid—

“You want me to pay in advance?” His hand went to his full purse without hesitation and he emptied part of the contents into his other hand. Having picked out the coins, he handed them to her.

“I am very sorry to seem so untrusting,” she said, slipping her hand through the slit in her skirt and finding the pocket tied around her waist, “but we see so few strangers in this house. Usually one client brings another.”

The man shrugged. “A decent inn would cost two pennies, and the companions I would find in my bed—even those with only two legs—would be less pleasant.”

Magdalene laughed. “I promise you will find no companion with more than two legs in any of our beds, and you may bathe if you like also. Your woman will help you. They are all equally skilled.”

“For the price, I imagine they must be,” he remarked, but there was no sharpness to his voice, rather, a good-humored acceptance. “What I cannot understand is how such an establishment came to be in this place.”

“That is easy enough to explain. The order of nuns that founded St. Mary Overy was very strict. The nuns would not permit men, except their priest, into their convent walls. When the order failed and the brothers took over the convent, they found a guesthouse outside the walls to be hard to manage. Moreover, a wealthy guest, who came often, found it inconvenient, so he contributed a sum that permitted the brothers to build a new and more comfortable guesthouse inside the walls. Since the brothers had no more use for this house, it fell back into the hands of the then Bishop of Winchester.”

“And he felt that what the priory needed was a whorehouse sharing its wall?”

Magdalene could not help laughing at the wry expression and tone. “It was not the current Bishop of Winchester who made the decision, so I never knew the man, but I can understand his problem. He could not rent to anyone who had a trade that was noxious or noisy, and in any case, there are few who would find this house useful or convenient, having no place for a stall on the road, two rows of small cells for sleeping, and no area fit for a workroom. And the building is too good to throw down. It is stone-built, with a good slate roof. Moreover, there are not many who could afford the rent for such a building—

“Ah, you pay a good rent, do you?”

Magdalene cast her eyes up to the ceiling and sighed. “Indeed we do, and—” She stopped speaking and cocked her head, then nodded. “I think that will be Sabina’s client leaving. He likes to get home before dark, and the light is almost gone. I will get some torches for us now.”

She rose and took from the highest shelf several torchettes made of rounded blocks of herb-scented wax, each with a many-stranded wick, affixed to a wooden holder. These she set into iron loops on the walls, one at each side of the room and one near the door, before she lit them from the fire with a wax-tipped spill. As she moved about, she noticed her guest looking at the corridor with considerable interest; Magdalene turned away to take candles down from the other end of the shelf. If he expected to see someone who frequented the establishment, he was doomed to disappointment. All guests were shown out through the back door just so they would not need to pass any other client waiting in the common room. He seemed to realize this, because a second brief glance told Magdalene that he was smiling too, and had lifted his wine cup to his lips. A few moments later, footsteps came down the corridor. Magdalene set the candles into the holder on the table but did not light them and returned to her seat.

“I am here by the fire, Sabina,” she said to the tall, slender woman who entered the room, “and we have an unexpected but most welcome guest.”

“Welcome, indeed,” Sabina said, turning toward them and coming forward slowly.

Magdalene’s gaze flashed toward the man and saw his eyes widen, but she was not sure what had surprised him. Sabina was very beautiful. Her skin was flawless, its delicate pallor almost luminous, and although her thick hair did not reveal its rich red highlights in the dimmer light, it still flowed in waves and curls over her back and shoulders down to her hips. Moreover, her short nose and her full lips, turned up at the corners in the bare hint of a smile, gave that loveliness a look of saucy merriness. Still, the man might have expected beauty for the price she had set, so likely it was the fact that Sabina’s eyes, although her head was turned in their direction, were closed. The doubt was settled when he jumped to his feet and extended a hand, not to take her arm, but to touch it gently.

“Let me help you find a seat,” he said.

Sabina smiled and raised her hand to take his. “Thank you, my lord. Not only are you kind, but you know how to offer help to a blind person. My seat is the one with the lute. Since I cannot embroider, I make myself useful in another way. Would you like me to sing or to play?”

She allowed him to seat her, although Magdalene knew she was perfectly capable of finding her stool and removing the lute from the seat without knocking it to the floor. And when he said he would like to hear her, if she was not tired, she laughed in a low, musical murmur.

“We are not overburdened here,” she said. “If I were tired, I could have gone directly back to my room. My ears are keen. I heard that Magdalene was talking to someone. I came because I was willing to entertain you in any way you desire.”

‘Then I would like to hear you sing,” he said, and when they had decided on a song, he settled back to listen with clear pleasure.

By the time the song was done, two other women had entered the room. They stood quietly by the table, and Magdalene grinned when she saw her new guest look from one to the other with astonishment. Each was as beautiful as Sabina in her own way, but totally different. One was tiny and as dark as a Moor. Magdalene had always assumed Letice’s parents must have been Saracen captives taken in the Crusade and brought back to England as slaves instead of being ransomed. Her skin was a warm olive-brown, her almond-shaped eyes black, and her hair a raven curtain that hung to her knees, so dark and shining that it shimmered with glints of green and blue. The other was her opposite, with milk-white skin stained with crushed strawberry on the cheeks; large, round, cornflower-blue eyes; and a pursed, cherry-red mouth. Her hair was golden and fell into curls and ringlets to her waist.

When the song ended and the women saw the guest’s eyes on them, they both curtsied. “I am Ella,” the blonde said, coming forward with a broad smile. “I am so glad you could come.”

The dark woman came forward, too, but said nothing, only nodded her head in greeting and took a seat beside Magdalene, reaching down for her sewing basket.

“And what is your name?” the man asked the dark woman.

“Her name is Letice,” Magdalene said, “and she is mute, so I am afraid she cannot make light conversation. However, she is a very skilled…embroideress and dances exquisitely. She is expressive enough about what is important here.”

Letice looked sidelong at the guest under her long lashes, and her lips parted a trifle. “So I see,” he said.

Magdalene chuckled. “I will go and tell Dulcie to bring our evening meal now. Why do you not go to the table with the women and speak with them a little. That should make your choice among them easier.”

He shook his head. “Nothing can make a choice among three such beauties easier,” he said as he rose, but then he bent to touch Sabina’s hand. “That was a lovely song, Sabina. May I show you where the table is?”

“Oh, she can find it herself,” Ella said in her little girl’s voice as Magdalene started down the corridor. “We are never allowed to move anything lest Sabina bump into it. She—oh, Letice, stop! You know Magdalene promised that I could light the candles tonight.”

Magdalene heard Sabina replying, reminding Ella that she had nearly set her hair afire the last time, and then, as Ella began to whimper, suggesting that if she would allow Letice to tie back her hair, Letice would let her light the spill, but she must be very careful. Magdalene sighed with relief. There would be no need to explain to their guest that Ella was simple.

She found, when she returned from making clear to Dulcie that there would be five at the table and nodding approval of the dishes the maid suggested, that she would not need to assure her guest that Ella was not being used against her will either. Having required the guest’s help to light the candles—as evidenced by his removing his hand from hers just as Magdalene entered the room—Ella frankly rubbed herself against him to display the virtue that made her so popular as a bed partner: her wholehearted and single-minded delight in sex.

“Ella, my love, we do not urge ourselves on guests,” Magdalene reproved gently.

Ella sighed and moved away. “But he is such a pretty man,” she said. “Sabina does not care how they look. She does not need to look at them.”

Sabina laughed. “But I know how they look all the same, love. My fingers tell me. And there are so few who know how to help a blind woman without pulling and pushing at her. What is more, he has a lovely voice. So do not be a greedy little bird. We all want this one.”

“Now, now, you will make the poor man blush,” Magdalene said just as Letice came forward and touched the tip of a pointed finger to the guest’s lips, following the gentle touch with an even gentler kiss. “Sit down, all. You are getting in Dulcie’s way.”

As the maid stepped through the corridor door and went to lay five large rounds of stale bread on the table, two at each long bench and one at the head, the man handed Sabina to a bench and sat down beside her. Ella, pouting only a little, sat on the other side of the table, while Letice went to the shelves and took down five cups, three knives, five spoons, and a ladle. She placed the ladle at Magdalene’s seat and left no knife at the guest’s or Ella’s; he had his own, and Ella would not touch a knife.

Dulcie returned with a pot of stew and a pasty, which she placed by Magdalene’s position at the head of the table. Meanwhile, Magdalene had brought a crock and the polished pitcher from the wall shelves and proceeded to pour ale for her women and herself, and wine for the guest. Then, before she sat down, she served everyone a portion of thick stew, which she dumped on the trencher with a slice of pasty beside it. Letice cut up Ella’s food and there was a short silence while everyone tasted the meal, broken at last by the guest’s compliments on the fine ragout.

“Dulcie is a good cook,” Magdalene said. “She came to me from a cookshop in Oxford. They could not keep her because she could no longer hear the orders. To me, her deafness is not important. In some ways it is a nuisance to have to shout or use gestures, but on the other hand, she cannot overhear what might be better unheard.”

“That is a comfort to some, I suppose, but not to me,” her guest said. “There are very few who would be interested in anything I had to say.”

Oh dear, Magdalene thought, this is a man who is concealing an important purpose and is not accustomed to doing so. A more practiced deceiver would never have denied a need for secrecy but laughed and agreed that all men had secrets. Magdalene kept her eyes on his face, careful not to glance at the pouch on its broad strap, which he had not set aside with his cloak. That pouch. Did it mark him a messenger?

“No, no,” she protested, laughing lightly. “Every man has things of interest to say. If you tell Sabina how lovely she is, she would hang on every word, I am sure.”

“And that would be a kindness,” Ella put in, “because, you know, she cannot see herself in a bowl of water or a plate of polished brass.”

“You are a sweet creature to think of that,” Sabina said to Ella, “but I am sure our guest has more amusing subjects to talk about.”

‘Truly, very little. In fact, I would be happy to hear any news of England, since I have been absent for some time. It is clear that the king is not in London. Has there been more rebellion that has carried him out to the field?”

“No, thank God,” Sabina said. “I do not know whether you were here when the Scots came down into Northumberland, and even to Yorkshire, but a great battle was fought at Northallerton, which was a victory for the English.”

Magdalene wondered, as Sabina told of the battle of the Standard and how it was Queen Maud who had traveled north to negotiate a truce, whether their guest could be a royal messenger. He certainly seemed interested when Sabina said the king was at Nottingham and assured him the news was reliable and had come to her from a well-informed client. But the man did not dress like a courier, nor was his bearing that of a man accustomed to wearing armor.

Almost as if he had heard her thought, the guest said he was glad to hear the country was at peace, because he had some traveling to do, and without asking directly, he drew from Sabina the information that King Stephen would likely be fixed at Nottingham for a little while. The king, Sabina added in explanation, was examining the treaty Queen Maud had made with King David of Scotland. Letice tapped her knife and spoon together and everyone except Sabina turned to look at her. She made a few gestures; Magdalene nodded.

“Someone told Letice that what is delaying the king’s confirmation of the treaty is the dissatisfaction of the barons of the north.”

“They are the most affected,” the man said, but his eyes were on Sabina’s hand as she walked her fingers over the table toward her cup.

Wondering if he were feigning lack of interest, Magdalene enlarged on the theme. ‘The barons do not like the terms, which might give the Scots some advantage if the treaty were to be broken, particularly because the truce arranged by the pope’s legate last November did not hold. But since Waleran de Meulan’s twin brother, Robert of Leicester, was involved with the queen in the making of the treaty, it is likely that Stephen will approve it anyway.”

The man shrugged. “It is the business of the English and the Scots,” he said, making his indifference clear. “What is of more interest to me is that Letice can say what she needs to say, even without a voice.”

“Sometimes,” Magdalene replied, “but only to those who know her well. I have been thinking about teaching her to read and write—”

“Teaching her to read and write!” the man echoed, looking shocked. “What for? And who would teach a whore such things?”

So for all his courtesy, he has a churchman’s attitude toward women, Magdalene thought. “What for?” she repeated. “To ease her spirit. So when she is bursting with a thought and cannot find a way to say what is in her heart, she could write it. And who would teach her? I would.” She laughed aloud at his expression. “From whom did I learn? Why, of course, from a churchman who did not wish to pay me in coin. I have found it a useful skill.” Then she laughed again. “I am sorry that you cannot read him a lecture on the evil of teaching deep mysteries to such fallible creatures as women, and whores at that. He is some years dead, poor man. He kept his purse strings drawn tight, but I liked him anyway.”

“Because he did not think you weak and fallible?”

“No, because he knew what I was and found me no worse, if no better, than the rest of humankind.”

He shook his head, smiling. “I cannot complain that what he did would not much help to save your soul when I am here—which surely will not help to save mine.”

“That is easily amended,” Sabina said, faultlessly using her knife to spear right through the chunk of meat on the last piece of gravy-soaked bread. “If you are troubled, you have only to follow the path in the back garden to the gate in the church wall. It is just on a latch. You can go through, around the apse of the church, and into the north door. Cross in front of the altar to the south door, which leads into the monks’ quarters, and I think you will find a bell that will summon a priest.”

“How convenient,” the man said, his full lips twitching. “Is the offering expected as high as the price here?”

Magdalene shook her head. “I, who have been treated with forbearance, can ill afford such a jest. The prior of the monastery is a gentle man of tender conscience. He has never been here himself and I believe him of a perfectly pure life, but I imagine that he writhes with the pain he thinks such sinners must feel and wishes to provide relief. If bad conscience draws from those who sin among us a substantial offering, well, it is not exacted by the church.”

Before he could answer, Ella said suddenly, “One of the brothers told me I was excom-com-communicate and damned. He was very angry.” Tears stood in her bright eyes. “Is that terrible bad?”

“For some, it might be,” the man answered gently. “I do not think it applies to you, my child.”

‘Thank you,” Sabina whispered in his ear. “She is truly an innocent. She does not understand the demands of her body, only obeys them. And I do not believe she has the power to control herself any more than an infant can control its bowels.”

He squeezed her hand, and found Magdalene was smiling at him. He raised a brow. She nodded. He smiled at Letice, leaned across and touched Ella’s cheek.

“Perhaps next time,” he said to her, and then turned to Sabina. “Are you ready?” he asked. She nodded, smiling.

Ella and Letice retired to their rooms almost as soon as the door of Sabina’s chamber closed behind her and her client. Magdalene took her embroidery, pulled the candles close, and sat working for some time to make sure that the new client would take no undue liberties with her woman. There was no indication that the man would turn nasty, but anyone who arrived without a recommendation from a known client made Magdalene uneasy.

There was something else about the man that made her uneasy. She was certain he was foreign, and his interest in the whereabouts of the king implied that what he carried in the pouch might be for or of interest to King Stephen. Normally, what she and her women learned from or about their clients, except for public news, was kept secret. They might discuss it among themselves, but they did not sell information or spread it with gossip. However, Magdalene was indebted for many favors and kindnesses to William of Ypres, and William was being supplanted in King Stephen’s favor by Waleran de Meulan. So, should she send William news of this man’s coming?

She sighed and raised her head, blinked smarting eyes. She did not know his name or even from where he came, though from his accent, she suspected Italy. Would her information be of any value? She blinked again and rubbed her eyes. She was, she decided, too tired to think the matter through and there was no need to do anything until morning. Possibly by then, Sabina might have learned enough, or the man himself might say more during breakfast. Finally she rose, walked silently down the corridor, and pressed her ear to Sabina’s door.

After a moment she heard Sabina laugh and her client exclaim over his own laughter, and she smiled and turned back to the common room. There she carefully put away her work and extinguished the candles on the table and the torchettes on each side of the room, replacing the one near the front door with a fresh one, which she left burning.

There was light enough when she left the door of her room open to undress, fold her clothing onto the chest that stood against one wall, and slip into bed. Because the client seemed a good man and clearly desired privacy, she was troubled by her intention of mentioning him to William, but William was an old friend.

Her doubts kept her wakeful until she heard soft voices in the corridor. After a while she heard the key scrape in the lock, but she did not hear Sabina’s footsteps returning. Surely he was not taking Sabina with him? Magdalene lay listening anxiously and then snorted gently at her own silliness. Probably his meeting place was close…even in the church itself, and he had told Sabina he would not be long away. The evening was mild. Likely Sabina had decided to sit in the garden and wait for him rather than chance she would fall asleep and not hear him knocking, which would cause him to ring the bell and wake the whole household.

A meeting in the church and churchly opinions, Magdalene thought sleepily, and the very sober, but rich clothing. A church messenger? The idea was somehow satisfactory; her eyes closed, her breathing deepened.

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