CHAINS OF FOLLY
MAGDALENE LA BÂTARDE MYSTERIES BOOK 4
by Roberta Gellis
Five Star Mystery Edition
When a murdered whore was found propped up in the bishop of Winchester's bedchamber with a letter to the bishop from the king's most dangerous enemy hidden in her breastband, no one cared that Magdalene la Bátarde and Sir Bellamy of Itchen had come to a parting of the ways. It was far more important that those two, so clever at untangling mysteries, protect the bishop's reputation by discovering who the woman was, who had killed her, and why. Parting had been bitterly hard for both Bell and Magdalene; it was not something either wished to experience again. But thrust together to solve a crime, was remaining apart impossible?
- A VERY DEAD WHORE
- Nelda Roundheels was charming enough to have a permanent patron, who provided her with comfortable rooms rent free; however, since he did not support her in any other way, he had to look aside when she took other clients. Had he grown jealous enough to murder her?
- A VARIETY OF CLIENTS
- Charming Nelda was, but not charming enough to account for the surprising generosity and great devotion of a number of her clients. When she was dead, those who investigated decided they must discover what had bound the wide variety of men to her so firmly.
- SOMEWHAT DISTRACTED INVESTIGATORS
- The bishop of Winchester was Bell's master and Magdalene's landlord. When he asked both to perform a service for him, neither had the luxury of refusing, but both found themselves unable to concentrate totally on why Nelda had died until they could decide on whether they belonged together.
Excerpt from CHAINS OF FOLLY
The chain was immediately unhooked, the gate swung open, and Diot relieved Magdalene of a few of the packages in the basket. This created almost more of a problem than it solved by unbalancing the rest of the bundles. Magdalene and Diot hurried to the house and through the open door, without another word, rushing to set everything down on the table before they dropped the easily bruised fruit or tore the fragile wrapping of the candied violets and smoked salmon.
Everyone in the house rushed toward the table to prevent anything from sliding down on the floor, all laughing heartily, but Magdalene froze momentarily with shock. Overriding the high, childish laughter of the exquisite but simple-minded blonde Ella was a strong baritone voice Magdalene knew all too well. She looked up. It was
Bell. She had not, out of longing, mistaken another's voice for his.
Bell was his usual elegant self, except that his face was flushed. He was wearing, over a shirt a great deal whiter and cleaner than most men's-Magdalene knew he paid his laundress extra to produce the effect-a sleeveless tunic of bright blue that came only to midthigh. The neck and hem of the tunic were bordered with dark blue ribbon, fancifully embroidered. Magdalene did not need to look at that; it was her own work. The dark blue matched the footed chausses that covered his legs, held to their shapely form with cross garters of the bright blue of the tunic.
He had removed the broad leather belt that supported his sword, but it was draped over one of the short benches near the table with the sword propped so he could seize it easily. Not that Bell expected to be attacked in Magdalene's house, but like always wearing a tunic short enough not to tangle his legs and interfere if he had to fight, the sword was always ready.
"I see that you expected Bell," Ella said, as she peeped under the wrappings of the violets and the salmon. "Why did you not tell us he was coming?"
"No," Magdalene said, "I did not expect to see Bell here today. I just thought a little celebration was in order. I am so very glad to be at home." She had swallowed down the shock of joy she felt on seeing him, damping it with the memory of the misery of the last three weeks.
"I did not expect to be here either," Bell said, voice harsh. The flush had receded, leaving him very pale. "I am here on the bishop's business. Let your women put your shopping away while I tell you."
She stared for a moment, then said, "Come into my chamber where we can be private."
Ella giggled, but Diot and Letice exchanged troubled glances. They had been aware, as Ella was not, that Magdalene's spirits were not what they should have been. Until now, they had put her oppression down to the dangerous political situation and the danger into which Lord William, her protector, was going. Now each suspected the trouble was more personal.
"This had better be urgent business for the bishop," Magdalene said as soon as she had closed the door of her bedchamber behind her. "You are not welcome here. You cannot tear a great hole in my heart and expect to hop back into the space whenever it pleases you. The hurt is sealed over already. A whore learns not to trust men."
"Is a dead woman sitting in the chair behind the table in Winchester's bedchamber urgent enough?" Bell snapped.
"What?" Magdalene gasped. "I never heard a hint that women were Winchester's vice."
"No, nor are they," Bell snarled. "Winchester was leagues away from London in my company and that of at least twenty other clerks and armsmen when that woman was placed in his chair."
"You mean she did not go up to his chamber and sit in the chair and die . . . or . . . or take her own life?"
"Not with a broken neck and fingermarks on her throat. I never yet heard of anyone who could break her neck and then walk up a flight of stairs and seat herself in a chair."
There was a silence and then Magdalene asked angrily, "But what have I to do with this?" She wondered suddenly if Bell's love had turned to hate as it sometimes did and he was attempting somehow to involve her in the death. "My women are all here safe and sound, and I certainly would not wish to embarrass or annoy the bishop of Winchester who has been kind to me."
Bell grimaced. "You have nothing to do with the woman or her death, but she was dressed as a whore and the bishop bade me ask if you would discover who she was and why she was brought to his bedchamber."
"The bishop sent you here?"
Flushed again, Bell said, "He thought it very funny. He said he had a mission for me that he was sure I would enjoy."
Magdalene said nothing, and after a moment Bell went on. "There is something else, something that could be very bad in these times. The woman was carrying a letter addressed to Winchester from Robert of Gloucester."
"What?" Magdalene said again. This time as if she could not believe her ears. "It cannot be real. Where would a whore get a letter from Robert of Gloucester addressed to the bishop of Winchester?"
"It is real enough. Winchester recognized the seal. He saw it often enough before Gloucester cried defiance. As to how she got it, there are a number of answers to that, but the simplest is that it was given to her to deliver to Winchester."
Magdalene stared at him for a long moment, slowly shaking her head and then said, "I cannot believe it. If the letter was meant to be given secretly to the bishop, all the messenger had to do was go to his house and ask for audience. Winchester is well known for listening to petitions."
"Unless the messenger who had the letter from Gloucester was already known as Winchester's enemy."
"Even so, to entrust such a thing to a common whore-"
"I think she was better than that," Bell said. His lips tightened as he added, "Not so grand and rich as you, but not out of the common stews."
Magdalene almost smiled at the painful admission, but managed to control her lips and only nodded acceptance. She knew he had said it to hurt her, but it did not. Indeed it gave her the only glimmer of hope she had felt since he had rolled his armor in his gambeson in Oxford and walked away.
If only she could bring Bell to accept what she was-to acknowledge that nothing could change the fact that she had been a whore for many years and, for a favored few, still plied the trade-perhaps they could come to a modus vivendi
. No, she would not allow herself even to think about it.
"How was she dressed?" she asked, sternly quelling a hope she should not feel. "What did she look like?" And then before he could answer, she added, "No. Stay for dinner with us and tell everyone. It is possible that Diot will recognize her, or Letice, although Letice does not mingle much with the other whores. Among her people, whoring is a respectable trade, so she is welcome to them and she finds those who practice the trade here disgusting because of their filth and crudity."
"Stay for dinner? But . . . but . . ."
Bell's heart seemed to squeeze hard in his breast and then began to pound. His constant longing for Magdalene in the three weeks since he had broken with her was like the ache of a wound that had never healed. Before parting with her, he had managed to blind himself to the fact that she still serviced William of Ypres. He had told himself she performed an unwelcome duty, bowing to William's power. But then she had confessed it was not only duty. That she should share her body he had been able to ignore; he did not see it happen. But that he must share her heart-that he could not bear. He started at Magdalene's voice.
"Why not? You are on the bishop's business and if we say so, no one will expect you to stay or even come back tonight."
He rubbed his hands nervously along the sides of his tunic. "Well . . ."
"It would be much better for the women to hear all the details exactly from you . . . only I do not think you should mention the letter to them. They are close-mouthed, but . . ." Bell nodded quick agreement and Magdalene went on, "And do not use the word murder when Ella can hear-"
"You may be sure I will not do that!" Bell exclaimed, his taut face relaxing into a smile. "I and my long sword, which can protect her, would never be allowed to leave without wails and reproaches." He laughed aloud as Magdalene opened the door and stepped out. "And actually the sword is almost useless in a house. It is the poniard-" he tapped the well-worn, leather-wrapped hilt of his long knife, which he had hooked next to his eating knife "-that is useful."
Magdalene sighed. "Yes, I have seen you use it in close quarters. I do hope this problem will not come to that."
"I, too," Bell agreed, and stopped abruptly as he entered the common room.
While Bell and Magdalene had been absent, the women had set the table for dinner. Bell's eyes misted a little when he saw that they had laid a place for him on the end of the long bench to the right of the short bench at the head of the table where Magdalene sat. He looked around the room, suddenly seeing the place with new eyes because he had thought he would never see it again.
Nobody entering that chamber would believe he was in a house of prostitution. The large room, the refectory when the house had been a monastic guesthouse, had the comfortable appearance of a well-to-do merchant's home. To his left, near a wall that had two open but solidly barred windows, was a large table. Two short benches were set at the head and foot of the table, two long benches along each side.
Across from the table was a generous hearth, now empty in the heat of summer. But around it were set four stools, three with work baskets beside them and the fourth facing a large embroidery frame that held an almost-completed altar cloth. Taking a deep breath, Bell walked toward the place set for him.
"Magdalene says she is very glad to be home," Ella said in her high little-girl voice. "I am glad. I was afraid that she would find some place she liked better and would not come back. Diot was very good, but it was not the same." She smiled at him with blinding happiness. "You are glad to be home, too. That is very good. I have missed you. I know you cannot be my friend, but it is comfortable to have you here."
Ella, small, plump, utterly adorable, with the mind of a child of five and an insatiable craving for sexual congress. Her golden hair hung in soft waves and curls down to her hips. Her skin was white, just enough touched with rose on the high cheekbones and lips to prove that she was in glowing health. Her nose was short and snub and her eyes were as blue-and as completely empty-as a cloudless summer sky.
Bell smiled back at Ella, although her words made him feel more like crying. "Yes, I am glad to be back too," he said, "but I am not likely to be here much. This is a very bad and sad time for my master and I will be very busy."
"Bad and sad?" Ella's eyes grew round, her expression apprehensive.
"Nothing to do with you, love," Bell said hastily. "And nothing to do with Magdalene or this house. It is all owing to a quarrel about what the Church owns and what the king owns. You may listen if you like, sweet, but I don't think you will find it very interesting."
"I am sure I will not," Ella said, giggling. "And there is no sense my listening when I will not remember anyway."
The faintly anxious expressions on the faces of the other women told him that they feared it was more than the bishop's problems that would keep Bell from the Old Priory Guesthouse. He looked from one to the other.
Letice was a perfect contrast to Ella, dark of skin and eyes, with hair that hung to her knees as straight and smooth as a black curtain. Also small, her smooth curves hid a wiry strength that, Bell had been told, permitted some remarkable sexual convolutions, which captivated a number of devoted clients. And perhaps some of them were captivated by the fact that Letice was mute and, they thought, could tell no secrets. About that, they were wrong.
Diot's bright emerald eyes met his, their expression hard and calculating. He had brought Diot to Magdalene's house out of one of the worst stews in Southwark. Diot, who had once been a lady . . . as Magdalene had once been a lady. Bell's mind winced away from that fact. He did not really want to know how or why Magdalene had become a whore, but she seemed much too calm in the face of violent death.
As for Diot, she was very beautiful, tall and lush with a skin smooth and lustrous despite being very white. Her hair was a rich brown with enough red in it to be called auburn, thick and waving and hip-length. His lips twisted wryly; he could guess what brought Diot from the manor where she had possibly reigned as mistress to the stews of Southwark. She was promiscuous by nature.
Nonetheless, Bell liked her. Diot made no secret of the fact that she craved-not one man, which was common to most women, but all men. Her bold green eyes assessed every man in a way that could not be mistaken. And although she was smooth as silk, a polite lady with her clients, with him she was blunt and honest.
Bell had to swallow hard as he picked up his belt and sword and moved toward his seat. It was not only Magdalene's beautiful, fragrant body that he missed. The truth was that the loss of her exquisite beauty and the joys of bedding her had become the least part of his torment. One of the greatest pleasures of being Magdalene's accepted lover had been the warm friendship of the other women of the Old Priory Guesthouse.
Lonely. Bell suddenly realized he had been lonely for years because he was trained and educated above the level of most of his equals. He could not find true companionship among men who thought of nothing but wenching, drinking, and gambling. Not that he did not enjoy those pursuits in those men's company, but there was something missing.
Diot patted the seat beside her, and Bell swung his leg over the bench and sat, propping his sword between the leg of the table and the edge of the bench. His mother, he thought, would have a fit if she ever learned that he had found his family pleasures again among the women of a whorehouse. He bit his lip to hide a grin. Bread and cheese was on the table and he drew his eating knife and speared a piece.
"So," Diot said, "Magdalene told us that the king dismissed the bishop of Salisbury from all his offices and demanded that Salisbury and his relatives yield their secular castles, but between Ella interrupting every moment and Magdalene herself trying to make ready to receive our clients and answer their questions, I am afraid I did not take in the whole tale nor the reasons behind it."
"The reason is simple enough," Bell said after swallowing the cheese. He broke off a piece of bread and stared at it thoughtfully. "Stephen was convinced, largely by Waleran de Meulan, that Salisbury and his relatives were planning treachery, that they had stuffed and garnished their keeps, and intended to use them in support of Robert of Gloucester, who would try to wrest the throne from Stephen and place his half-sister Matilda on it. The old king had forced the barons to swear to make Matilda queen."
"And I always thought Henry was a realist." Diot snickered. "Imagine Henry believing men would support a queen once he himself was gone."
Bell shrugged, swallowed a piece of bread he had broken off with more cheese. "They would assume, of course, that Robert would rule, and Robert is loved and respected by many. If Robert of Gloucester leads Matilda's forces, Stephen does have some cause for worry."
"Some, but I know that William-" Magdalene's voice faltered as Bell's face darkened and then she went on "-was not best pleased with the king's dealing with Salisbury."
"Now that is where I get lost," Diot said. "For what did the king blame Salisbury?"
"A riot." Bell sounded grim and Magdalene shivered, remembering how Sir Ferrau had helped foment that riot and then tried to kill her. "Oxford was overcrowded. Salisbury came very late to the meeting and his men had no lodging and it rained, and it rained. Salisbury's men went to ask Alain of Britanny to share his lodging. Alain's men said Salisbury's people had been threatening and offensive. Who struck the first blow depends on which side you question, but soon all the men were involved and Alain's nephew was sore wounded. The king wished to blame Salisbury, and he did."
"Ah, I see." Diot nodded. "Then Stephen was able to say that Salisbury had broken the king's peace and no longer deserved to be the chief minister of the kingdom."
"That was not all," Bell said between gritted teeth. "The king also demanded that Salisbury yield all of the castles he had built and what was therein. Salisbury refused and the king had him arrested together with the bishop of Lincoln and Salisbury's son, Roger le Poer."
"But surely Stephen is not so mad as to treat his own brother and the pope's legate in the same way," Diot said.
"God knows," Bell sighed. "The problem is that my master cannot ignore the affront to the Church."
"But is it an affront to the Church?" Magdalene asked. "The king has not seized any of Salisbury's benefices nor threatened his position as bishop. The only things Stephen wrested from Salisbury are his castles, owned by the man not the Church, his secular offices, his place as justiciar and other appointments. That is surely the king's right."
"But it is not his right to seize Salisbury, Lincoln, and Roger le Poer physically. The person of a man of the Church is sacrosanct, and specially the person of a bishop."
Magdalene shrugged. "What did you want Stephen to do? Look the other way while Salisbury and his kin fled into their stuffed and garnished keeps? Come Bell, you are a soldier and know that the king, having exposed to them his suspicion of their treachery, could not let them slip out of his grasp."
"It is very strange indeed to hear you singing Waleran de Meulan's song," Bell snarled.
"Why are you angry?" Ella cried, looking from one to the other, tears rising into her eyes.
"Oh love," Magdalene sighed, leaning over to pat Ella's hand, "we are not angry with each other. We both desire the same thing but are convinced that different ways of obtaining it are best. So we talk quick and loud, but . . . but we are still . . . friends . . ." She took a quick deep breath, glanced sidelong at Bell, and began to laugh, realizing that the word "friend" meant something different to Ella.
Bell, understanding quite well that to Ella "friend" meant a man you serviced, flushed, and then also laughed. "But in a way you are quite right, Ella," he said. "There is no sense at all in Magdalene and me quarreling about this because we have no power to change what will happen. My master has decided what he will do, and I am bound to carry out his orders. Besides, what I came for was something quite different."
"I thought you came to see us," Ella remarked, pouting.
"That was an added pleasure, but not what brought me. I told you that I was here on business."
At that moment, Dulcie came from the kitchen carrying a large platter of beef slices swimming in their own gravy and a smaller one on which slices of the smoked salmon were laid out. She went out again, but Bell, stomach growling, drew his eating knife, speared two slices of the beef, and dropped them on the broad trencher of stale bread that marked his place at the table.
By then Dulcie was back with a deep bowl of greens and another of turnips and carrots. A third trip brought a tureen from which rose the odor of a savory fish stew. With a broad smile, Letice filled her bowl with that, put some smoked salmon and some vegetables on her trencher. Then she fixed her eyes on Bell and as soon as she caught his, she made a sign for him to continue.
Bell chewed and swallowed, glanced at Ella, and sighed. "You know my lord has been at Winchester for some weeks past. Yesterday afternoon, late, we rode into London where he stopped at St. Paul's to talk to Father Holdyn, the episcopal vicar, and then went on to his house. He had, of course, sent the servants and the carts ahead, but when we arrived instead of finding all ready, the house was in turmoil."
"Oh, I hope no ill has befallen Father Wilfrid," Magdalene said. The old clerk who remained in London to attend to any minor problems with Winchester's property had always been fair and reasonable when considering her requests-which was not always true when churchmen dealt with whores.
"No, no. He is well, except for feeling that he had somehow failed the bishop. When the servants went up to set up the bishop's bed, you see, they had found a woman . . . ah, in the bishop's chair, seated at his table, and . . . ah . . . it was impossible to . . . er . . . ask her to rise and leave."
Letice and Diot stared at him; both then glanced at Ella, who was busy picking pieces off the slice of smoked salmon she had taken, pushing aside the pieces of beef that Letice had cut up for her.
"I suppose she had a reason," Diot said.
"Yes. The poor woman seems to have been badly beaten and a day or two later she somehow . . . ah . . . damaged her neck . . . ah . . . permanently."
Letice's eyes opened wide. She signed one finger going down several others, then sliding, then lying bent on the table, then getting up and climbing the stair again. At which point she shook her head vehemently.
"Yes, just so. The bishop and I went up at once to look at her and it was clear that she could not have climbed up to Winchester's bedchamber on her own. Moreover I found marks on the windowsill that showed she was pulled up by a rope."
Diot shuddered, made sure Ella was concentrating on her food, and put her hands around her own throat. Bell shook his head.
"I will explain that later," he said, glancing at Ella. "But what brings me here in particular, is that she is dressed as one of your sisterhood. Obviously, since the servants who found her cried out in alarm so that everyone in the house rushed up to see what was wrong, there is no way of keeping this secret. Plainly it was intended to embarrass the bishop, but he has no
idea who would do such a thing-"
"Nonsense," Magdalene said. "Anyone who wished to make the conclave the bishop has called into a travesty might try to show Winchester as sorely stained with secular vice." She frowned. "That is not fair. Winchester has his faults, but he has kept his vows of abstemiousness and chastity."
"No, it is not fair, but his opponents do not play fair. So, will you help us, Magdalene? The bishop hopes you will be able to find out who the woman was and to whom she was connected."
"Yes, of course. I will try, at least. I do not know every whore in Southwark, but what does she look like?"
"Alas, very ordinary. Brown hair, brown eyes, a pleasant face-well, it would have been pleasant if it were not slack and fallen in. Oh, yes, she had a mole right here."
Bell touched the edge of his right brow. Magdalene shook her head but, oddly, both Diot and Letice frowned.
"It might be that I know her," Diot said uncertainly, and Letice nodded agreement. After a glance at her sister whore, Diot added, "I would have to see her." And again Letice nodded agreement, but she did not look at all happy.
"It is too late now," Magdalene said.