Bone of ContentionMAGDALENE LA BÂTARDE MYSTERIES BOOK 3
by Roberta Gellis
Tor/Forge September 2002
ISBN is 0-765-30019-2
The king's Council is meeting in Oxford and Magdalene la Bátarde is providing a safe-house there for William of Ypres. Magdalene expects trouble, but she does not expect one of William's men to be accused of murder so that William can be discredited. Unfortunately the suitors of Mistress Loveday of Otmoor are being killed one by one and the only man suing for Loveday’s hand who is left alive is Nial Arvagh, one of William’s captains. The real killer must be exposed so that William’s influence with King Stephen will not be further eroded...
The bells of St. Friedesweide were just ringing for Vespers when William of Ypres came striding into the Soft Nest, never stopping at Florete's table and bellowing, "Heyla Chickie, where are you?"
Florete signalled urgently to her men to sit still as six men in helmets and boiled leather armor followed their master through the door, but she sighed with relief when Magdalene flung open the door to the back room and ran forward into William's bear-like embrace.
"Perfect!" he exclaimed, peering cautiously into her chamber, then pushing her back into the room and slamming the door behind him with his heel.
"I'm so glad you approve," she replied, voice laced with irony, "since I haven't the faintest idea where else to go."
He gave her a rib-bending, affectionate hug that squeezed the breath out of her, then put her away from him to smile down at her. "I was worried about where you would find a place," he said in a more moderate tone. "I even thought of emptying out that house you used to rent, but the way things are, I couldn't have done it quietly. There would have been howls of protest. It would have become known that I took the house, and I'm not sure everyone would have believed that I would go to so much effort only for a favorite whore."
"Then God must favor you, because it was sheer luck that Florete was afraid to rent this room to anyone. She thought she would end up with a troop of men-at-arms in there who would make merry with her whores and pay nothing."
He laughed. "Likely she was right." But then his smile disappeared, and she noticed the grey in his hair, the new lines on his face, the grey tone under the weatherbeaten brown of his skin, and how he blinked his eyes, as if to clear them.
"You look tired, love," she said. "Come, sit down." And she led the way to the chair. "Shall I send the boy out to get some wine and food? I have had no chance yet to buy in stores."
He sank into the chair, put his elbows on the table, and dropped his head into his hands. "Don't bother. I have another meeting for the evening meal." He sighed. "My spirit is tired, Magdalene, not my body. God knows, I've done little enough but stand around in the Court making stupid noises."
"Is there something I need to know to mind my tongue, William?" she asked anxiously.
He shook his head helplessly. "I don't even know if there is something I need to know," he growled.
"Will this help?" she asked, and repeated what Diccon had told her about the wagering between Waleran's men and Surrey's.
"In the common room of a whorehouse," William said softly, lifting his head. "I knew what they were saying, of course. Waleran has been whispering his warnings in the king's ear since we all arrived and the king was kind enough--" his lips twisted "--to pass those warnings to me, since doubtless I would be the one who would have to winkle the bishops out of their castles, but I am a little surprised that the suspicions were common knowledge in the town and among the common men-at-arms. So his men are deliberately spreading the doubts to all. But why?"
Magdalene ignored a question she knew was not for her, but she shivered. "William, what will happen to the realm if Salisbury and his son and nephews are turned out of office?"
There was a silence and then William said softly, "Why do you think I cannot sleep at night? I don't know, Chick, I don't know ..." He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "Except that there will be war and I will do what is necessary to save the king's groats."
"Stephen is a fool!"
Magdalene sighed. "Will this place be safe for you, William, if Waleran's men and those of his blood kin come here?"
He laughed and put out an arm to pull her close, ignoring the fact that the arm of the chair was cutting painfully into her thighs. "Sweet Chick. I think sometimes you really do care about me."
She dropped a kiss on the top of his head and blinked back tears. His hair was not only graying but thinning too. "Well, I do," she said, making her voice light, "even though you don't know your own strength and you will break my legs and cripple me if you don't let me go." He released her, but swatted her sharply on the buttocks, and she sighed. "Answer me, William. Will you be safe coming here? I will find another place if it will be better for you."
"No!" He grinned up at her. "And of course I will be safe, you silly woman. Waleran wouldn't harm a hair on my head, especially when there is fighting coming along. Do you think he wants to risk his precious hide on the field? As long as I am alive and well, the king will send me."
"A fool, but he knows whom he can trust."
"In war ..." Now William sighed, but then he smiled and gestured for Magdalene to sit down on one of the stools. "Maybe you spoke aright when you said God favored us. That this place is a known haunt of Waleran's men is perfect. You remember Raoul de Samur?" Magdalene wrinkled her nose and William laughed once more and went on, "Yes, yes, he is no prize, but he has been of use to me. A place where it is known his fellows all come will make him feel safe. He will be willing to bring news to you of Waleran's meetings and doings more often and even speak to me in your chamber directly--in which case I am sure I will be able to squeeze from him even more than he thinks he knows."
"I suppose so." Magdalene grimaced. "But he is not likely to look on me with favor. I threw wash water in his face, Sabina crowned him with her staff, and Dulcie finished him off with her frying pan."
William roared with laughter. "Is that how you subdued him? Poor man. I am glad we are on such good terms." Then he shrugged. "He will not dare touch you or even misspeak you. He knows how I value you."
I will have to warn Bell, Magdalene thought. Raoul will not know that William's protection covers Bell--if it does. William had never shown the slightest sign of sexual jealousy over her, but he seemed to realize that Bell was more than just another body in her bed. Would he doubt her loyalty when he learned that Bell was also in Oxford or would that arouse his sense of possession?
Unaware of her thoughts, William continued, "And that was interesting news you gave me about the betting. Can you arrange to hear more of what the men who come here say?"
"I think so. It was the boy who carries messages and fetches food and wine for the women and the clients who told me. He's clever, and I gave him reason to like me ..." William raised his brows and she laughed. "No, you evil-minded man. The boy is barely twelve years old. I gave him two farthings and a meal. He will be glad to listen for me and bring me what he hears."
"I do not believe I was much above twelve when I had my first woman," William mused, grinning. "Ah, well. I imagine I was a likelier lad than any half-starved whore's brat. At least while you are here he will be better fed. You do tend to take in the lame and the lost."
"And find good use for them," Magdalene said sharply, then suddenly cocked her head. "Which reminds me, William, could I ask your men to keep their eyes open for a pretty blind girl? I am looking to replace Sabina."
"I thought you had with that green-eyed slut."
Magdalene laughed. "Why is Diot more of a slut than I?"
William stared at her, blinking his eyes to clear his vision. After a moment he said, "You did what you must ... as I at times do what I must. Diot does what she likes."
Magdalene stared back at him. "You are very perceptive, William," she whispered.
"Which is why I am still alive."
He looked away, staring into nothing for a long moment, then pushed back the chair and began to rise. Magdalene rose also, her hand going to the tie of her shift, which showed above the neck of her gown.
"It is not only 'must' with you, William," she said.
He looked down at her and drew her to him, gently for once. "I wish I could," he said, resting his cheek against her hair, "but I am pledged to share the evening meal with Lord Hervey at Alain of Brittany's lodging. Curse the man, he looks down his nose at all of us as if we were bugs to be trod underfoot. And Stephen usually has little patience with such airs. I cannot think why I am sent to dance attendance on him."
That comment was not meant for her either. Magdalene only said, "Let me change into a bedgown, William. There is no reason to let Florete or anyone else wonder what we have been doing."
He nodded and released her and went on irritably as she swiftly removed her clothing and replaced it with a tucked and embroidered linen bedgown, "This Hervey is not even a decent Norman. He is all French from his overcurled hair to his long-toed shoes."
The continuation of subject implied that William did want an answer from her. "Then he must be connected to King Louis' court and Stephen wants something from the French king."
"I know that!" William snorted.
"A wife for Eustace?" Magdalene ventured.
William groaned. "Another reason for the king to show himself strong and in total control of his realm." He shook his head. "The boy may ripen into something--" he sighed "--but I see no sign of it." He went to the door and opened it. "You are always a pleasure, Magdalene," he said as she followed him out. "I will be back as soon as I can find the time."
Hearing his voice, his six armed men came out of the common room where they had been teasing the whores. They stepped out the door and William paused by Florete's table. Magdalene tightened the tie on his shirt as if she had not done it up properly. He flicked a finger against her nose.
"Be good, Chick."
He turned away as a big man, with a badly bruised face, a black eye, a swollen nose, and split lips, pushed past Florete's table and almost collided with Magdalene. What more could be seen of him was stringy, somewhat matted black hair, a dark eye--the blackened one was swollen shut--with an unshaven stubble on his cheeks and chin.
"A penny for the likes of them?" he lisped over his shoulder as if his teeth were loose. "Common whores they are, no better than I could buy for a farthing."
Florete stiffened a bit, and Magdalene gave back a step and then tried to sidle around the complainer to follow William to the front door, but the man sensed the movement and seized her arm.
"Well, where've you been hiding this one?" In addition to the indistinctness of loose teeth, the big man's voice was thick with drink and spittle spotted his broken mouth. "Here's one to make up for the whey-faced sack of wet mud I'll be wedding tomorrow."
"Let me go," Magdalene said coldly. "I do not work in this house."
"In a bedgown in this house, you work here," the man snarled. "My money's as good as his--" he gestured with his head toward William, who was just stepping out the door.
"You are hurting me!" Magdalene exclaimed, her voice rising. "Let me go!"
"Sir!" Florete half rose from her seat. "Let her go! She speaks the truth. She does not work here. She is a visitor on business."
While she was speaking, another man came around her table. He said, "Aimery, this is a decent house. If the woman is not willing ..." His voice trailed away denoting some discomfort about Magdalene, at whom he was staring.
She had been struggling to draw her eating knife, but hesitated with her hand clasped around the hilt, twisting her head toward the new speaker. His voice sounded familiar. She would prefer to have her attacker's friends take him away than to stab a man in Florete's house.
"Sir Ferrau," she cried, recognizing the second man. "Tell this creature to unhand me."
His eyes fixed on hers, and recognition dawned on his face. Doubt dawned also. Magdalene could see Sir Ferrau trying to decide how to react to the plea of a woman to whom he had been introduced by a respectable knight but whom he discovered in a whorehouse. While he hesitated, a large hand fell on the shoulder of the man called Aimery.
"Let her go. Now!"
The bellow could have wakened the dead. Several of the curtains in the corridor twitched half open. Sir Ferrau gaped and his eyes widened.
"Aimery," he cried, rushing over and trying to loosen the drunkard's grip on Magdalene. "For God's sake, let the woman go. That is William of Ypres."
"And Waleran de Meulan is my master," Amiery growled, drunk and sullen. "I don't need to fear Ypres."
At that moment Magdalene's eating knife came free of its sheath and struck down at the hand gripping her. It was not a large knife, but it was pointed and very sharp for cleaning and paring fruit, and it went right through the man's hand. Furious, Magdalene twisted it as she drew it back. Aimery's half-uttered shriek was cut off as, almost simultaneously with Magdalene's blow, William's hands came around his throat and squeezed.
"Don't, William," Magdalene gasped, seizing his arm. "He isn't worth a quarrel with Lord Waleran."
William looked into her troubled face, and his hands slowly relaxed their grip.
Two heartbeats later Sir Ferrau pleaded, "I beg you my lord, don't kill him. He is drunk."
As soon as William had ordered Aimery to let go of Magdalene, Florete's bully boys had started to rise from their stools and reach for their cudgels, but they had not been able to decide how to accost their prey without interfering with William of Ypres or Magdalene. Now when William released the semiconscious man, they leapt forward, seized him, and dragged him out the door. Sir Ferrau, did not follow, only stepped back out of Lord William's sight.
"You all right, Chick?" William asked roughly.
"Oh, yes," Magdalene said, looking up at him from cleaning her knife, "I'll have a bruise ..." She grinned. "But your affection sometimes gives me worse. Go ahead, William. You'll be late."