A Mortal Bane
Author:Roberta Gellis

“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.