Authors: Felicity Pulman
Love, revenge, secrets
and murder – in a medieval kingdom at war.
Janna’s search for her unknown father has brought her to the heart of the royal court of Winchestre, but her purse has been stolen, she has no proof of her identity, she’s working as a drudge in a tavern to support herself, and she can’t choose between the two men who love her. Winchestre is fired in the deadly battle between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, but the true danger to Janna comes from the man sent to silence her forever. A chance meeting brings Janna’s father to the tavern – but when sabotage threatens the tavern’s future, Janna must choose between her duty to save the woman who gave her sanctuary, and her duty to obey her father.
This book is a work of fiction. The herbal remedies and practices detailed herein are based on ancient folklore and should not under any circumstances be considered as an actual remedy for any ailment or condition.
It was late summer of the year of our Lord 1141, and Winchestre was abuzz with rumors of a possible confrontation between Henry, Bishop of Winchestre and brother of King Stephen, and Empress Matilda, rightful heir to the throne of England. No-one doubted that the matter must be settled, given the empress’s determination to seize the crown from her cousin Stephen, but everyone hoped that it could be settled amicably – everyone, that is, except Janna and the empress’s own entourage. Although they, too, prayed for a peaceful end to the matter, the discovery that all along the bishop had been in league with the queen to further the interests of his brother, the king, led them to fear the worst. Uncovering the bishop’s treachery had resulted in the death of several men, with such tragic and horrifying consequences for Janna that she was finding it almost impossible to put the past behind her.
A shaft of misery pierced her heart at the memory of Ralph. His death had left her with an aching sense of loss and betrayal; of desolation, grief and anger. She thrust aside her memories of Ralph and focused instead on the ordeal ahead, for once again she was making the journey to the estate belonging to her father, John fitz Henry. Although she’d already visited the estate on several occasions, she was sick with nervous anticipation. She swiped her sweating hands down the fabric of her gown to dry them, and checked the contents of the purse hanging from her girdle once more. Usually she wore the purse inside her gown, close to her skin to keep it safe, for therein was the proof that must surely persuade her father that she really was his daughter. Her fingers touched and pressed, feeling for the roll of parchment, a letter written by her father to Eadgyth, her mother, explaining his prolonged absence and assuring her of his love. Her mother had never read the letter because, Janna had discovered to her dismay, she didn’t know how to read. And now she was dead. It was because of her mother’s death, and the manner of her dying, that Janna had sworn to find her father and bring the man responsible for Eadgyth’s murder to justice.
It had been a long journey, and hard, but the end was close now, so close. Warin, her father’s steward, had told her that Sire John spent most of his time with his wife and children in Normandy, so Janna had written him a letter. Loving Eadgyth as he had, surely the news that he had a daughter would hasten his return to Winchestre? Unless, of course, he was content with his new life and his new family, and had laid the ghosts of the past to rest. In which case he might never come at all.
She pushed the unwelcome thought from her mind, and turned to her companion. He rather resembled a goblin: a man in his late middle age with wispy gray hair and a nose
too large for his face. She had met him along the road while in the company of a band of pilgrims, and had come to like and trust him. “Do you think he’s here yet, Ulf,” she asked, “or is this just another wasted journey?”
The relic seller paused for a moment and stretched, easing his muscles under the weight of the heavy pack he carried. “There’s been more than enough time for your message to have reached Lord John, and time enough too for him to board a ship from Normandy, lass.” A smile lightened his face. “Happen he’s waiting for you right now. And if not…” He gestured to the huge dog that trotted at his side. “Happen it’s time to set Brutus onto that shifty old bag-o-bones, just to find out if your message was ever sent!”
“Warin wouldn’t have dared withhold it!” But the same thought had gnawed at the back of Janna’s mind ever since she’d penned the letter to her unknown father and handed it over to the reluctant steward.
“If your father hasn’t arrived yet, I’ll see if Brutus can frighten the truth out of that whoreson,” Ulf promised.
Janna reached down to fondle the dog’s ears, and Brutus paused long enough to lick her fingers. They hadn’t always been friends; it had taken a long time to win the dog’s trust. And until she succeeded, Janna had been frightened of him, just as she was sure that Warin, her father’s steward, was afraid of him now, for the hound was large and ferocious, an alaunt bred specially for hunting. On previous visits to the estate, they’d accepted the steward’s glib reassurance that the message had been sent and it would be only a matter of time before her father appeared. Perhaps Ulf was right; perhaps it was time now to scare Warin into telling the truth.
But what if her father was waiting for her even now? Janna’s stomach gave an uneasy quiver, even though she’d been too nervous to eat any dinner at all. Instead, she had sipped a mug of ale while Ulf wolfed down a hearty meal of blood pudding. She had met him at the Bell and Bush, a tavern just off the high street close to the East Gate and St Mary’s Abbey, the Nunnaminster, where she had taken up residence in the guest quarters until such time as her father appeared. She and Ulf always met there before their pilgrimage to her father’s manor. He told her little of how he occupied his time otherwise. Janna knew that he had taken cheap lodgings in Tanner Street, where the water course needed by the tanners and dyers ran, and which consequently bore the stink of their trades, and that he eked out a living as a purveyor of the precious relics of saints. She knew better than to ask him where he found the wonders that he peddled, for she had her suspicions but didn’t want them confirmed. He was a rogue, she felt sure, but she trusted him in everything that mattered. Besides, he had been good to her in the past, and she valued his friendship and support. Especially at a time like this.
“Have you seen anything of Master Thomas and his players?” she asked, curious for news of the jongleurs who had accompanied them part of the way to Winchestre.
“Nay, not yet.” Ulf chuckled. “They must have found a safe haven somewhere else, but I’m sure they’ll be here in time for St Giles’s fair.”
“Everyone will be here for that!” Janna exclaimed, clapping her hands together in excitement at the very thought of it. Although she hadn’t been long in Winchestre, she’d already sensed the buzz of excitement as craftsmen worked all day and by the light of rushes and candles at night in anticipation of increased sales of their goods. She looked along the high street, noting the chapmen with their bulging packs, and the wealthy merchants who were already in town and anxious to secure the most advantageous positions in one of the rows of stalls now being constructed or refurbished on St Giles Hill. “You should do well at the fair, Ulf,” she said.
“I intend to!”
Janna was tempted to ask what relics he had to trade. She smiled as she thought of the white feather he’d given her, now nestled among the treasures in her purse. She was fairly sure it had come from one of the swans that cruised up and down the River Itchen, although Ulf had told her it had once belonged to the Archangel Gabriel. Wherever it had come from, the present had cheered her at a time of great loss and anguish, and she treasured it.
The section of the high street known as Chepe Street was becoming ever more crowded, as people finished their dinners and came out of the alehouses to barter and buy goods from the shops and pentices spread along the length of the wall of the old palace. Bolts of fabric, cords and ribbons, slippers and boots, candles, soap, and spices were traded, as well as gold and silver adornments, candlesticks, and fine plate and pottery dishes for those wealthy enough to afford extra luxuries.
A line of carts trundled past, heaped with supplies, bound for the old palace in the center of the town. Janna frowned. It seemed an odd place to store goods when the palace was so obviously unused. Her attention was diverted by the beggars among the throng, hands held out for alms. Some were blind, some crippled, and some, Janna suspected, were merely chancers, preferring handouts to a hard day’s work. Touched by the sight of a young girl balancing an infant on her hip, she reached into her purse for a coin, certain the pair must be orphans, for the girl looked little older than six or seven summers. She was concerned, knowing they would be living a hand-to-mouth existence if there was no adult to care for them. She held out the coin, which was quickly snatched by a grubby hand. “God bless you,” she said, and received an incomprehensible mutter in reply.
Janna wondered what had happened to the children’s mother. Perhaps she had died in childbirth, which was often the case, but surely there must be a father or aunt or grandparents to look after them? She looked about for someone, and saw a flicker of movement as a man ducked out of sight. Janna was left with the impression of whiskers and a stained tunic. Had he been watching out for the pair? Was this how he supported his family? She moved on, hoping that her coin would be put to good use and not wasted in one of the alehouses.
Her nose twitched. The stench from the open drain that collected water and refuse from the streets that fed into the high street was bad enough, but they were also passing a fishmonger. Janna held her breath; some of the fish were not altogether fresh. When forced to breathe once more, she drew in the reek of the butchers’ shops. Carcasses of hares and plump birds dangled from hooks; livers, lights, and the body parts of larger animals were spread out on a stained counter. A pack of dogs had gathered to stare hopefully at the prizes just out of their reach.
Janna smiled then as she caught sight of a young boy hurtling down the street in pursuit of a hoop that he bowled merrily before him. She realized that he was heading straight for her and hurriedly stepped out of his way, only to have him swerve at the last moment and crash into her. With a gasp, Janna went down, taking an elbow in the face as the boy tried to stop himself from falling. Brutus started to bark and circle around the fallen pair. Janna cautiously levered herself up into a sitting position. The child shrank against her, staring at Brutus with wide, frightened eyes.
Ulf darted forward. “Now then, lass, have you hurt yourself?”
“No, I’m unharmed.” Janna waved at him to take Brutus away and turned to the boy. “Are you all right?” Silly question, she thought, as she noticed blood trickling from a gash on his leg.
He nodded and tried to stand, but got caught up in the hoop and fell on top of her. Janna’s breath was knocked out of her body; she gave a strangled whoop as she struggled to suck air into her lungs. She doubled over, breathing quickly, while the child untangled himself.
By now they had attracted quite a crowd; everyone pressed in close to see what the fuss was about and to offer solicitous advice. Someone reached out a hand and hauled the boy to his feet. Probably his mother, Janna thought, for she began to scold him for running off, all the time patting him down and fussing over him with gestures that spoke louder than her words of her concern over the runaway child.
“I ’pologize if he has caused you harm, mistress,” she said, turning to Janna with an anxious expression. “But ’twas an accident, no more ’n that.”
Janna stood up and, still breathless, began to brush the mud and muck from her gown, for she had fallen close to the gutter that ran down the center of the street. She thought of the meeting with her father and her spirits sank. Her fine gown had become increasingly shabby since she’d received it as a gift from the abbey and now it had picked up a trace of excrement from a passing horse that she hadn’t managed to avoid when she fell. She almost found it in her heart to wish that her father was still absent, for she did not want to meet him looking so disheveled and dirty.
“Do not trouble yourself, mistress,” she said, recognizing that her efforts to spruce herself up were futile. Annoyed, she couldn’t resist bending down so that her head was level with the child’s. “And you, young scoundrel, just watch where you’re going in future!”
Shamefaced, he buried his head in his mother’s skirts. Janna forced a smile and turned away, searching her heart to forgive him his high spirits. Still feeling somewhat breathless and shaky, she pushed her way through the crowd that had gathered, and went in search of Ulf. He was holding on to Brutus with some difficulty, for the dog was excited and still barking furiously, straining against Ulf’s tight hold of his ear. When the relic seller saw Janna, he let go and the dog bounded over and jumped up, almost knocking Janna down again as he gave her face an enthusiastic lick.
“Brutus! Ugh!” Janna pushed him away and wiped her face on her sleeve.
“That’s one way to clean yourself up,” Ulf said with a grin. His nose wrinkled as he observed Janna more carefully. “Would you like him to lick your gown too?”
Janna grimaced. “I’m just wondering if I should throw myself into the river before going to see my father.”
Ulf’s smile contracted into a concerned frown. “I’m sure he’ll love you no matter how you look – or smell!”
“Don’t!” Janna began a reluctant inspection of her gown to see just how bad the damage was – and caught her breath in a gasp of alarm.
“What?” Ulf grabbed hold of her arm. “What’s wrong?”
Janna didn’t answer. She couldn’t. She held up the cut cord that once had secured her purse to her girdle. The purse was gone, along with her father’s letter and the gifts he had given to her mother: the ring bearing his crest and the brooch with a loving message inscribed on it. She’d lost all the proof that she was who she said she was. How could she hope to convince him now?
“Christ’s bones!” Ulf’s shocked exclamation echoed Janna’s despair. Knowing that it was probably hopeless, she scanned the crowd just in case she recognized anyone from the group that had gathered around her and the boy when they fell. That was when it must have happened: some cutpurse taking advantage of the accident, and her inattention. But people were going about their business as usual, no-one showing any interest in her at all.
“Did you see anything? Notice anything?” Ulf asked.
Janna shook her head. She was still speechless with shock. Not only had she lost her father’s gifts, but all the coins she had saved were also gone – the coins that were meant to keep her in comfort at the abbey until her father’s arrival.
Everything was gone. Janna closed her eyes, trying to come to terms with the full magnitude of her loss.