A Mortal Bane
Author:Roberta Gellis

A Mortal Bane by 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 One




19 April 1139






Priory Guesthouse