Roberta Gellis
A Mortal Bane paberback A Mortal Bane hardcover
September 2002
ISBN 0-312-87593-2
Tor/Forge Books
March 2001 ISBN 031286998-3

Magdalene la Bâtarde has a new case of murder to solve. When Sabina returned to the Old Priory Guesthouse, weeping, Magdalene at first believed she had been cast out by her lover. But Sabina had come to beg Magdalene to save Mainard from being accused of killing his wife. Sabina said it was impossible for Mainard to have murdered Bertrild but who else had as urgent and powerful a need to be rid of her?

Sabina was blind, but she could readily perceive love and hate. When Mainard offered not only love but freedom from the life of a whore, she seized his offer eagerly. She truly loved her gentle giant, and was determined to save him from being hurt. But would she go so far as murder to free him from his incubus of a wife?
Mainard had a face that could give strong men nightmares and certainly generated hatred in the woman who had married him for his money. His wife never stopped telling him he was a monster. Only the blind whore Sabina thought he was beautiful and came willingly to his bed. Had Mainard, driven to desperation, killed to keep Sabina?
Bertrild was a bitter, angry woman with a vicious tongue. She rejected her husband, misused her slaves, and made a public nuisance of herself by accusing half the merchants in the East Chepe of corrupt behavior and evil practices. However, none of her unpleasant behavior seemed serious enough to inspire murder. Nonetheless, Bertrild was dead, of multiple, violent stab wounds.


Mainard opened the door, stepped inside, and caught his breath then uttered a low chuckle. Sabina had been with him almost a month; he saw her at least once a day, often three or four times, as often as he could find an excuse to go up to her chamber, but he still was not accustomed to the delighted smile with which she greeted him or to her beauty. He looked at the mass of dark hair, the rich red-brown of well-polished chestnuts falling to her hips in deep waves, at the oval face with its short slightly broad nose and wide, deep-rose mouth. Even the closed, sunken eyes, their dark lashes lying on her creamy skin, added to the beauty by giving an air of mystery to her smiling face.

"Haesel," he said, addressing the girl child who was wrapping up a heel of a loaf of bread to put on one of the shelves to the left of the hearth. "Do not bother to save what is left of our meal. Take it over to the church and give it to whoever is feeding the beggars there. Here is a penny. Buy some pottage and half a roasted chicken and a sweet ... less sweet and more food," he told her, shaking a finger at her, "for your evening meal."

The child grinned at him, took the penny, and pushed it through the opening in her gown into the pocket tied around her waist. If she had been afraid of his ugliness when he first took her from the churchyard where she had been left when her parents abandoned her, she was accustomed now and was as lively and saucy as any well-fed child of ten should be. She promptly dumped odds and ends of meat, the soaked trenchers off which they had eaten, some rinds of cheese, and the broken remains of a pasty into a basket, and skipped out of the room.

When the door closed behind her, Sabina said, "You will not have the evening meal with us, my love?"

"Are you bored and lonely, Sabina?" he asked.

A sweet smile made her face even more beautiful, and she held out her hand. He hurried forward and took it. "I am always lonely when you are not with me Mainard."

He sighed heavily. "That was what I feared. You are accustomed to the company of the other women of the Old Priory Guesthouse. There is no one to talk to here "

"Oh, you silly man." Her laughter was sweet and low, an invitation to intimacy. "Can you not recognize a compliment when you hear one? It is your company I crave, love, not that of my 'sisters' fond as I am of them. I am not bored or lonely. I have songs to make up and Haesel to teach. You chose well, when you chose her. She is very clever and already speaks a little French."

He kissed her hand and then, when she raised her head invitingly, her lips.

She clung for a moment, then said hesitantly, "Would it be easier for you, dearling, if I went back? At first I thought your wife would not care since she did not want you, but now I know she is angry at my being here ..."

"Don't!" Mainard fell to his knees and buried his face in her lap. "Do not leave me!" He drew a sobbing breath. "If you want other men, have them. I will look the other way. Only do not leave me."

She bent over him, kissing his hair and the bald purple scalp. When she did that, he gasped and shivered. "I will never leave you of my own will, Mainard. I do not want or need other men. You give me such joy that I do not believe I will ever desire another man. I did not ask for my own sake. Beloved, I served in a common brothel for years. You know that. I do not care what people shout at me or throw at me or even for blows. I only care that I may be making your life harder." She kissed him again. "It is hard enough already, I know."

Magdalene had been watching her newest whore from the corners of her eyes as she embroidered one of the final saint medallions of the altar cloth that was due at the mercer's next week. She was far better pleased with Diot than she had expected to be. As the woman's fear of misuse receded, she had shown herself to be clever and surprisingly perceptive about the desires of the men to whom she was offered. And she enjoyed her work. Now all that needed to be proven was that she would not revert to her old ways, that she would not tell tales of the clients where she should not, and that familiarity would not breed contempt of her clients.

Just as Magdalene was considering whether she should allow matters to proceed on their own or give Diot a gentle warning, the door, which had been closed against the morning chill, was opened to admit a girl child followed by a blind woman. Magdalene caught her needle into the cloth and smiled, assuming that Sabina had found time to visit.


The voice was so strained, so choked, that the smile was wiped from Magdalene's face, and she jumped to her feet, knocking over her embroidery frame. "Sabina," she cried, starting forward, her arms outstretched. "What is wrong, love? Have you quarreled with Mainard?"

Orienting on the voice, knowing there would be open arms to receive her, Sabina released her hold on Haesel, dropped her staff, and rushed forward. She flung herself into Magdalene's arms.

"She is dead!" she gasped, bursting into sobs.

"Dead? Who is dead?" Magdalene cried, but she felt suddenly sick.

It must be Mainard's wife who was dead, and if Sabina was so overset, he must have put her out, hoping to find a respectable wife who would bear him untainted children.

"Murdered," Sabina got out between sobs. "Bertrild was all but cut to pieces in the yard of Mainard's shop. Oh, she deserved to die, but now Mainard is suspected."

"Bertrild was murdered?" Magdalene echoed.

She hardly heard the end of what Sabina had said. If Bertrild had been murdered, someone would soon remember the trouble that personal devil had tried to make for those of the Old Priory Guesthouse. Would she and her women be accused of taking revenge?

"Mainard did not!" Sabina cried. "I know he did not!"

By now Letice and Ella had put down their embroidery and risen to their feet. Both added their comfort, Letice patting Sabina's shoulder and Ella stroking her head and making soft reassuring murmurs. Diot also put down her work, but she did not move. She watched the scene with wide, frightened eyes. If Sabina's lover was guilty of murder, the blind woman would be forced back into the Old Priory Guesthouse. If she came back, her clients would return to her and there would be none for Diot herself.

"Hush, Sabina, hush," Magdalene was saying. Sabina shuddered convulsively, and Magdalene clutched her closer. "Come love," she crooned, leading Sabina toward the table and benches. "Come and sit down."

Between them all, Sabina was seated on one of the short benches with Letice and Ella standing beside her and offering comfort. Magdalene sent Haesel off to the kitchen, where Dulcie would keep her busy one way or another. Then she seated herself on the corner of the inner long bench and took one of Sabina's hands in hers.

"Dearling," she said gently, "do you want to come back here to stay? You will be very welcome." She heard a sound, half gasp, half sob, and glanced briefly toward the hearth where Diot still sat, her eyes fixed on them.

"No!" Sabina cried, recoiling. "I will never leave Mainard, never! He did not do it! Oh, help me! Help me to prove that he is innocent. Mainard could never kill a woman, not even such a devil as she was."

"Truthfully, I would not have believed he could," Magdalene said thoughtfully, patting Sabina's hands. "Despite his appearance, I could have sworn Mainard was one of those who tears out his own lungs and liver when he grieves or rages and never allows his bile to spill over on those around him."

"It is true," Sabina breathed.

"Perhaps," Magdalene said. "But I am afraid we will need more than your feeling or mine to keep him from being hanged. I would surely have killed Bertrild if she were my wife." She hesitated momentarily, thinking she was coming too close to her own past truth, and she continued quickly, "Is Mainard taken by the justiciar?"

"No," Sabina gasped. "No. He is gone home to the Lime Street house to wait for the brothers of St. Catherine's hospital to clean and release the body. He said also he would speak to the priest about the burial."

"If he is suspect, why did the justiciar release him?"

"He did not do it! He was with me the whole time!"

Her hand closed so hard on Magdalene's that the nails bit into the flesh. Magdalene looked down at Sabina's hand. "You told Master Octadenarius that Mainard was with you when Bertrild was murdered and he allowed Mainard to go home. Then why are you so frightened, love?"

Sabina was shaking so hard that both Letice and Ella squeezed onto the bench with her and embraced her, one on either side. "Because if they cannot find who really killed Bertrild, you know they will discount my testimony. I am a whore!" She burst into tears.

Ella began to cry also, and Magdalene told her to get some wine for Sabina and then to go help Dulcie and Haesel in the kitchen. Ella was easily frightened and should not hear what would prey on her mind becaue she could not understand. As she turned back to Sabina, Magdalene wondered whether what Sabina had said about Mainard being with her was true, and she frowned as she thought of Master Osbert Octadenarius casting around to discover who else might have wanted Bertrild dead. He would surely remember that Bertrild had brought a complaint before him about her and the Old Priory Guesthouse.

When Sabina had sipped the wine and her sobs had quieted, Magdalene said, "I think you had better tell us the whole tale from the very beginning."

"Oh, I am not sure where the beginning is."

"Mainard has been married to Bertrild for some years. He must have known what she was long ago. Why was she killed now? Was there some particular thing that happened, something Octadenarius could discover, that could have driven Mainard to violence?"

"It is my fault. All my fault." Sabina sighed tiredly. "You know when I agreed to go and live with Mainard, both of us believed that Bertrild would not care, that she would be glad to be free of him."

Magdalene's lips thinned and she felt a prick of guilt. She had learned from another client that Bertrild had some spite against her husband and wanted to make him suffer. If Sabina brought him happiness, Bertrild would do anything to spoil it. She should have warned them.

"And Mainard did not want gossip to hurt her pride," Sabina was saying, "He actually charges me rent and finds me work singing so that I can pay." The sweetest smile erased the fear on her face for a moment. "I enjoy that so much. My singing is praised. I have been called back to two of the places to entertain again."

Magdalene smiled. Sabina was blind, but she always knew when someone smiled at her. Could she "hear" it in the voice? "As soon as we have a party, I will invite you here to entertain." She patted Sabina's hand. "But I gather that your pretense was not sufficient to fool her."

"For a while it was, but three weeks ago there was a man waiting across the road from Mainard's shop, and when I came out he threw offal at me and called me a whore."

"Did Mainard drive him away?"

"Oh, no. Thank God he was not there. Codi the journeyman rushed out and chased whoever it was away."

Naturally Magdalene did not bother to ask if Sabina had seen her attacker. She said, "So far so good. Mainard might never have known of that."

"Well, he did, but there was worse that everyone in the street heard about."

Magdalene made a "tchk" of irritation. It would have been better if Mainard seemed unaware of any insult or attack on Sabina, which he might well blame on his wife, but he would be worse off if his friends were ignorant of what his enemies knew. She made an encouraging noise.

"Just this last Wednesday," Sabina continued, gulping unhappily between words, "she came secretly into the shop and came upstairs and attacked me. Henry would not think to stop her or--"

"Wait," Magdalene said. "Who is Henry?"

"He used to be a saddler, but something terrible happened to his hands. They are all twisted and he can hardly hold a spoon or knife to feed himself. He could not work and had to give up his shop. Mainard--you know what Mainard is; he cannot bear to see misfortune--he offered Henry the work of selling." Sabina found a wan smile. "It is true that bread cast upon the waters comes back tenfold. Henry has doubled the profit of Mainard's business. In secret Mainard told me that Henry was never a very good saddler but that he could sell a saddle to a man who had no horse."

"So Henry stands outside the shop at the outdoor counter and must see everyone who enters and leaves. Does he live in Mainard's house?"

"No. He has a wife and children and a house of his own. Well, I think Mainard may actually own it now since he paid Henry's debtors, but Henry does so well between his pay and his commission on what he sells, that it is nearly all paid back."

"So Henry let Bertrild pass. Would he not even call out to Mainard to say she had come?"

"He did not," Sabina said softly. "I think he feared her. She used to call him 'cripple' and make cruel jests about his hands and she said something to him one day--you know how keen my ears are--about knowing the true reason for his crippling and for the loss of his shop."

Magdalene sighed. "Before we are done, we will be hard put to it to find anyone in London who did not wish to kill her. Well so she came into the shop and upstairs to your chambers. What do you mean she attacked you?"

"First she bade me go back to the pest-house from which I came and said that if I did not what had happened to me in the street would grow worse and worse, that she would see to it that the whole Chepe knew I was a whore and unclean."

"No one heard this except you?"

"Not that part. She was speaking very quietly until she ordered me to get up and leave, just as I was, taking nothing or she would report me to the sheriff as a whore and a thief. But I did not move from my chair and I said I would not go. I admitted that I had been a whore once but did no longer practice that trade, that I was a singer and player of the lute and that between my earnings as a musician and my savings I had enough to live without selling my body."

"Were you also speaking quietly?"

"Not as quietly as she. I was a little frightened and hoped Mainard would hear ..." Her voice trailed away and she shuddered. "I did not know then that she would be ..."

Magdalene squeezed her hand and she swallowed and went on.

"He did not hear. The pounding of the hammers is so loud. But then she seized me and started to try to pull me from my chair, and when Haesel tried to get her loose, she hit the child and knocked her down. Haesel screamed, and I screamed, too, because she had hold of my hair and knocked my staff out of my reach. Then she slapped me, shouting that I was a filthy whore and had caused her father's death." Sabina stopped speaking abruptly and looked pitifully anxious. "That could not be true, could it?"

"Certainly not, love. Do you not remember that drunken sot Gervase de Genlis? Even Ella would not serve him after the first few times, but he came to a night-time party with some mercers and a goldsmith ... oh, a little less than two years ago. On his way home he stopped in an alehouse, got into a brawl, and was killed. I remember because Bertrild came here not long after and threatened all kinds of evil. She accused me of murder and wanted me to pay to keep her quiet. I told William, who spoke to the sheriff of London and that was the end of it, of course. There was no doubt that we had no part in how the unlamented Gervase died."

Sabina sighed. "I am glad. I did not need another death on my conscience."

"Why should Bertrild's death be on your conscience?"

"Because I wished her dead! Oh, how I wished her dead. I prayed for it ..." She shuddered again, and Letice hugged her tight.

"But you did her no harm. You said she had knocked down your staff." Magdalene knew that Sabina could wield that staff to protect herself and a very unpleasant idea had come into her head.

"No," Sabina said. "I was so shocked that I did not even fight back or try to shield my face. Mainard came. He must have heard us screaming. Haesel said later that she thought he would kill the nasty lady--that was what she always called Bertrild, even though she knew her name. She said his face was all one color red, he was so angry." Sabina uttered a sob. "But he did not! He did not do her the smallest hurt, even when he was in a terrible rage. He only picked her up, as if she were a doll of straw, Haesel said--you know how strong he is--and carried her away."

"Was that the last time you saw her?"

Silently Sabina shook her head. Then she said, "She came back again yesterday. It was midmorning, after Mainard had left to bring the week's takings to his goldsmith. He had left early because his friend Pers Newelyne had invited him to his new son's christening party at noon and I was going too, to sing."

"So Mainard did not see her?"


"Did she attack you again?"

Sabina drew in a deep breath. "No. I heard her screaming in the shop and I thought she was angry because Codi would not let her come up, but I did not think he could stand against her for long. Codi is afraid of her also."

Magdalene watched Sabina's soft lips thin into a cruel line and remembered that this seemingly gentle blind woman had survived some years in an ordinary stew. It was one of the better ones, not like the place Diot had come from, but anyone who had survived life as a common whore had learned self defense.

"I took my staff and went to open the door." Sabina's nostrils flared wider. "If she came up, I was going to put my staff into her throat and try to break the Adam's apple. And if I could not, I was going to push her off the landing down into the shop!"

"Did you?" Magdalene asked, almost grinning.

Sabina shook her head again and then started to sob. "Oh I wish I had. I wish I had. Then Mainard would not be in any danger. And I thought I would get off scot-free. I did not believe anyone would blame a poor blind woman who had lifted her staff to defend herself and overset her attacker by accident." She bent her head and covered her face with her hand, sobbing bitterly for a moment, then said, "I did not even care if they did hang me for it. At least poor Mainard would have been free."

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