A Mortal Bane
Author:Roberta Gellis

“Teaching her to read and write!” the man echoed, looking shocked. “What for? And who would teach a whore such things?”


So for all his courtesy, he has a churchman’s attitude toward women, Magdalene thought. “What for?” she repeated. “To ease her spirit. So when she is bursting with a thought and cannot find a way to say what is in her heart, she could write it. And who would teach her? I would.” She laughed aloud at his expression. “From whom did I learn? Why, of course, from a churchman who did not wish to pay me in coin. I have found it a useful skill.” Then she laughed again. “I am sorry that you cannot read him a lecture on the evil of teaching deep mysteries to such fallible creatures as women, and whores at that. He is some years dead, poor man. He kept his purse strings drawn tight, but I liked him anyway.”


“Because he did not think you weak and fallible?”


“No, because he knew what I was and found me no worse, if no better, than the rest of humankind.”


He shook his head, smiling. “I cannot complain that what he did would not much help to save your soul when I am here—which surely will not help to save mine.”


“That is easily amended,” Sabina said, faultlessly using her knife to spear right through the chunk of meat on the last piece of gravy-soaked bread. “If you are troubled, you have only to follow the path in the back garden to the gate in the church wall. It is just on a latch. You can go through, around the apse of the church, and into the north door. Cross in front of the altar to the south door, which leads into the monks’ quarters, and I think you will find a bell that will summon a priest.”


“How convenient,” the man said, his full lips twitching. “Is the offering expected as high as the price here?”


Magdalene shook her head. “I, who have been treated with forbearance, can ill afford such a jest. The prior of the monastery is a gentle man of tender conscience. He has never been here himself and I believe him of a perfectly pure life, but I imagine that he writhes with the pain he thinks such sinners must feel and wishes to provide relief. If bad conscience draws from those who sin among us a substantial offering, well, it is not exacted by the church.”


Before he could answer, Ella said suddenly, “One of the brothers told me I was excom-com-communicate and damned. He was very angry.” Tears stood in her bright eyes. “Is that terrible bad?”


“For some, it might be,” the man answered gently. “I do not think it applies to you, my child.”


‘Thank you,” Sabina whispered in his ear. “She is truly an innocent. She does not understand the demands of her body, only obeys them. And I do not believe she has the power to control herself any more than an infant can control its bowels.”


He squeezed her hand, and found Magdalene was smiling at him. He raised a brow. She nodded. He smiled at Letice, leaned across and touched Ella’s cheek.


“Perhaps next time,” he said to her, and then turned to Sabina. “Are you ready?” he asked. She nodded, smiling.


Ella and Letice retired to their rooms almost as soon as the door of Sabina’s chamber closed behind her and her client. Magdalene took her embroidery, pulled the candles close, and sat working for some time to make sure that the new client would take no undue liberties with her woman. There was no indication that the man would turn nasty, but anyone who arrived without a recommendation from a known client made Magdalene uneasy.


There was something else about the man that made her uneasy. She was certain he was foreign, and his interest in the whereabouts of the king implied that what he carried in the pouch might be for or of interest to King Stephen. Normally, what she and her women learned from or about their clients, except for public news, was kept secret. They might discuss it among themselves, but they did not sell information or spread it with gossip. However, Magdalene was indebted for many favors and kindnesses to William of Ypres, and William was being supplanted in King Stephen’s favor by Waleran de Meulan. So, should she send William news of this man’s coming?


She sighed and raised her head, blinked smarting eyes. She did not know his name or even from where he came, though from his accent, she suspected Italy. Would her information be of any value? She blinked again and rubbed her eyes. She was, she decided, too tired to think the matter through and there was no need to do anything until morning. Possibly by then, Sabina might have learned enough, or the man himself might say more during breakfast. Finally she rose, walked silently down the corridor, and pressed her ear to Sabina’s door.