Devil’s Brew: The Janna Chronicles 5
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.
Ulf was already scanning the crowded street with narrowed eyes, looking for anything untoward, anyone skulking about and trying to hide, or hastening away lest guilt be detected. Janna remembered how casually she had opened her purse to find a coin for the orphans. Had their guardian been watching, deciding even then to help himself to more? Or had someone else been tempted by the bulging purse, thinking there were riches for the picking inside? If so, they would be sadly disappointed, for in truth Janna had already spent much of what she’d been given, both by a grateful Emma for saving her lover’s life, and by Robert, Earl of Gloucestre, as a reward for her part in unmasking the bishop’s treachery. The treasures left in her purse were, for the most part, of value only to her.
And now they were gone! A shroud of misery enveloped Janna. Too stunned even to cry, she wrapped her arms around her body and hugged herself for comfort, to keep herself from flying apart. She had nothing left; nothing to live on or to live for. Nothing to give meaning to her life. The thief had taken less than he thought, but far more than he knew.
Ulf touched her arm. “What can I do to help?”
Dumbly, Janna shook her head.
His mouth tightened into a thin line. “I’ll keep my eyes open and spread the word,” he promised. “Sooner or later that whoreson will be tempted to sell your father’s ring, or the brooch.” He smacked his hands together, a sound so loud that Janna jumped. “Then we’ll have him!”
Janna sighed. It was a slim chance, but a chance nevertheless. But there were far more pressing problems to deal with now. Somehow she must find a way through, find the strength to carry on.
“Don’t mind how you look, lass,” Ulf said bracingly, understanding something of her dilemma. “Let’s be getting on to your father’s manor and pray that he’s arrived at last.” He eyed Janna thoughtfully. “Even if he hasn’t, you must ask that steward to prepare a room for you, for I doubt the good sisters of St Mary’s will house and feed you if you can’t pay your way.”
“No!” Janna shuddered at the thought of Warin. “I’m not staying with that dreadful old man if my father’s not there. I won’t!” Perhaps she could persuade the sisters at St Mary’s to let her stay in return for her help in the infirmary. She shook her head, knowing it was unlikely. While she’d lived at Wiltune Abbey she had come under the guidance of the infirmarian there, putting into practice the ancient healing skills she had learned from her mother, as well as the knowledge of medicine that Sister Anne had taught her. These skills she had offered to the infirmarian at St Mary’s Abbey when she’d first arrived, but her help had been rejected. The infirmarian and her assistant were protective of their demesne and guarded it jealously from outsiders. There was no room for her in the abbey’s infirmary, just as there’d be no room in the guest house either if she had not the coin to pay for it. She closed her eyes, fighting tears.
“Don’t worry, lass. We can make a plan, but it might not come to that if your father’s here.” In spite of his reassuring words, Ulf’s expression was troubled as they turned into Alwarene Street.
“Perhaps we should call in to St Peter’s and ask for help?” Janna suggested, as they passed a small church.
“You could pray to St Anthony or St Jude.”
Janna lifted an enquiring eyebrow.
“Patron saint of lost things. Or lost causes. Take your pick.”
“Lost things, yes, but not lost causes, thank you!” Janna considered for a moment. “I’d rather pray for a pox to take the villain who stole my purse!”
“In that case, I don’t know who you should ask.” Ulf’s troubled frown smoothed into a grin as he cupped her elbow with his hand and hurried her on. “The church says nowt about vengeance – not for the likes of us, any road.”
But vengeance was what Janna wanted. Her blood surged hot at the thought of her stolen possessions and, as she reflected on why she needed her father’s help, her rage intensified. Her mother had been poisoned, and by a man who was so far above them in status that Janna had been unable to name him. Instead, she had seen her mother buried in unhallowed ground, denigrated and scorned by the villagers and their priest, while the murderer walked free. But she would bring him to justice. She would! She would shame him before everyone. Somehow she must convince her father that she was his unknown daughter, and persuade him to act on her behalf.
They were nearing the imposing door of her father’s house. Janna’s hands trembled as she tried to smooth her hair and dust herself down, while Ulf tugged the bell pull.
“Yes?” The same portly personage with the fringe of gray hair opened the door to them. “Oh, it’s you again,” he said, and gave an incredulous sniff as he caught a whiff of Janna’s gown. “Sire John has not yet arrived from Normandy,” he continued, repeating what he’d told them in the past. He was already closing the door when Janna cleared her throat.
“We wish to see Master Warin,” she said, her voice trembling.
The doorkeeper looked them up and down.
“Now!” Ulf insisted. Beside him, Brutus growled.
Reluctantly, the doorkeeper stepped aside, and once more escorted them through the hall to a room at the back, the scriptorium where the steward carried out his work on her father’s behalf. Janna wondered how long they’d be kept waiting this time. Warin seemed to have any number of hiding places, including the orchard where they’d once found him half asleep. He’d been thoroughly disgruntled at being disturbed, even after being told that his lord’s daughter wished to make her father’s acquaintance. Janna wondered how he managed to conduct any business at all when his manner was so surly and disobliging, and when he seemed to spend so little time on his legitimate duties.
She began to prowl around the scriptorium, searching for anything that looked like a letter, just in case one had come from her father, John. A thought struck her. She’d been given his name: Johanna. Would that be proof enough?
Janna shook her head, knowing it was unlikely. She continued to search through the pages of parchment piled upon the table, picking through the numerous accounts and receipts among them. She scanned the pages, taking note of the huge quantities of wool and other goods listed there. They must come from some great estate out in the country somewhere, for this manor here in Winchestre was not nearly large enough to be other than a residence and collection point. It seemed that the steward conducted a thriving business on her father’s behalf – when he could be bothered.
“What do you think you are doing?” Warin hobbled forward, disapproval carved in every line on his face as he snatched the sheets of parchment from Janna’s hands. “Your father’s affairs are not your concern. Only I am privy to this information.” He glared at her, his expression turning even more sour as his gaze swept down her gown and he smelled its pungent aroma.
“My father is still not here, then?” Janna kept her voice steady with an effort, unwilling to show the steward how needy and despairing she felt.
“No.” Warin shot a nervous glance at Brutus. “I told you before to keep your dog on a lead,” he told Ulf, in a show of bravado.
Ulf ignored him. “We’re tired of waiting,” he said sternly. “In fact, we’re wondering if Mistress Johanna’s message was ever sent to Normandy at all.”
“Of course it was!” The steward puffed out his skinny chest, indignant at having his word questioned. “Indeed it was. I sent one of my men straightaway to Southampton with it.”
“Which ship did he travel on?”
“The…” Warin gulped. “The…er…the Marie Louise.”
“Has the messenger returned?”
“Yes. Yes, he has. Just a few days ago.”
“But your master didn’t come with him?”
“No.” Warin eyed Brutus, and looked quickly away. “The message did go, I swear it. Roger took it, and he handed it over on his arrival at your father’s demesne. He told me so, and I have no reason to doubt his word. It is not my fault if your father does not wish to answer your summons.” A spiteful smile curved his mouth. “Perhaps he does not believe your claim?”
“Send for the messenger,” Ulf said quickly, noting Janna’s stricken expression. “We would like a few words with him, if you please.”
Warin heaved a martyred sigh and hobbled to the door. He was gone some time, but finally reappeared with a young man in tow. He was hardly older than Janna, being some nineteen or twenty summers all told. His bright brown eyes brimmed with a friendly curiosity as he inspected her. He took a couple of disbelieving sniffs.
“This is Roger,” Warin said curtly.
“You took my message to Normandy, Roger?” Janna asked.
He bobbed his head in acknowledgment.
“You took it to my father’s manor?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“And you saw my father?” Janna couldn’t hide her eagerness – or her disappointment when Roger shook his head.
“No, my lady.”
“But you were told to take the message to my father!” Janna looked angrily from Roger to Warin. “Didn’t you tell him that?”
“Yes! Yes, of course I did,” the steward said.
The youth’s bright demeanor had vanished, replaced now with a wary sullenness as he realized he was in trouble. “I asked to speak to Sire John, but the dame, his wife, said that he was absent on business. So I gave the message to her instead.”
“Blanche?” Janna was horrified. “You gave the message to Dame Blanche?”
The youth nodded.
“And what did she say?”
“I understood none of it, for the dame spoke in the language of the Normans. She talked to her steward, and he told me to wait. So I did, in case there was a message to bring back to you. But after a time, the steward told me there was no reply and I could leave.”
No reply? Had the message ever reached her father? Or did “no reply” mean he might come to England and see for himself the young woman who claimed to be his daughter? This thought cheered Janna slightly, as did the one that followed: Her father might well have to settle affairs on his estate in Normandy before he could make the crossing to England. But what was she to do in the meantime, while she waited for him to come?
“Thank you, Roger.” Janna wished she had a coin to reward the young man for his trouble. Even more, she wished that the message had fallen into her father’s hands instead of going to Dame Blanche. Had she read Janna’s message? Would she have passed it on to her husband if she understood Janna’s claim?
The youth bobbed his head again and scuttled quickly away, his beaming smile betraying his relief that he wasn’t in trouble after all. Janna shot a glance at Warin. She could not, would not, cast herself on the steward’s mercy.
“We’ll return in a few days,” she said curtly, and gestured to Ulf that it was time to leave.
“I shall look forward to your visit,” Warin replied softly. Janna sensed the malicious satisfaction that lurked beneath his words.
Ulf whistled to Brutus, and together they left the scriptorium and passed through the door into the street outside.
Ulf gave Janna a sympathetic grin. “If you won’t seek shelter here, where will you go instead?”
Janna had no answer. The future seemed unbelievably bleak. She had no choice but to wait for her father, and hope that he would come to England. But for now, her most important task must be to work out how she might survive until her father’s arrival.
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 ablaze 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. Chance 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.
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Felicity Pulman is the award-winning author of numerous novels for children and teenagers, including A Ring Through Time, the Shalott trilogy, and Ghost Boy, which is now in pre-production for a movie. I, Morgana was her first novel for adults, inspired by her early research into Arthurian legend and her journey to the UK and France to ‘walk in the footsteps of her characters’ before writing the Shalott trilogy – something she loves to do. Her interest in crime and …