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Unholy Murder: The Janna Chronicles 3, page 1

 

Unholy Murder: The Janna Chronicles 3
 



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Unholy Murder: The Janna Chronicles 3


  About Unholy Murder: The Janna Chronicles 3

  Love, revenge, secrets—and murder—in a medieval kingdom at war.

  Forced to flee once more, Janna takes shelter at Wiltune Abbey. She hopes to learn how to read so that she may gain clues to her father’s identity from a letter kept secret by her mother. But even in the house of God there are mysteries to solve. Who is the stranger asking questions about her? Who stabbed the lord Hugh at St Edith’s fair—and was the knife meant for Janna? Who is stealing and destroying Sister Ursel’s illuminated pages depicting the Life of St Edith? And why is someone leaving lilies at the saint’s shrine? The bitter civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda brings the empress to the abbey, and results in a meeting that will change Janna’s life.

  Contents

  About Unholy Murder: The Janna Chronicles 3

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Glossary

  Author’s Note

  About Pilgrim of Death: The Janna Chronicles 4

  About Felicity Pulman

  Copyright

  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.

  Chapter 1

  The abbey’s great gate clanged shut, its metal bars vibrating with the impact. The sound held an awful finality. Janna shuddered as she realized what she had done. True, she’d found sanctuary from those who wished her harm—most especially the lord whose secret she held close to her heart—but in doing so, she had cut herself off from the world, and from all those whom she’d come to love. But Janna knew she had no choice. While she lived, her knowledge, her very presence, threatened the lord’s status and the comfort to which he had become accustomed. There was no place other than Wiltune Abbey for her to hide in safety.

  She looked through the darkness to where Godric still lingered beyond the gate. In the light of the flares that lit the gatehouse, she could read the misery on his face, a misery she was sure was reflected in her own expression. More than anything, she wished she was free to follow her chosen path: her quest to find her unknown father and seek justice for the death of her mother. Instead, she was trapped within a convent of women who had given their hearts and minds to the Lord Jesus Christ. Janna couldn’t understand why they’d want to do that, how they could bear to shut themselves away, just as she herself was about to be shut away.

  “Janna!” Godric was beckoning her to come back to him.

  She turned away, knowing that if she went back to Godric now she might not have the will to leave him again. But she couldn’t change her mind; she could not return to the outside world until her mission was accomplished and she was safe. Her only source of comfort was that she’d taken time along the journey to tell Godric, in confidence, everything that had led up to the death of her mother and the real reason she’d run away rather than let anyone know she was still alive. He, more than anyone, deserved an explanation for her behavior. Although her revelations had so shocked him that, at first, he could hardly speak, the fact that he’d drawn her close, and given her a lingering kiss, told her that she was truly forgiven. More, he understood her decision now, even though he wasn’t happy about it.

  “Janna!” he called again.

  Despite her resolve, she couldn’t resist one last look over her shoulder.

  “I forgot to give you these.” He held out his hand and she saw the glint of silver in the hollow of his palm. “Take the coins!” he said. “Take them all. Thanks to my lord Hugh’s gift of land and my new service to him, I have no need of any further reward, but you still have your way to make in the world.”

  Tempted, Janna hesitated. She could not afford to be proud. Apart from the few objects secreted in her purse, which held value only for her, she had nothing to offer the abbey in return for food and shelter. The coins would help to buy her a way in, and smooth her path when, later, she took to the road in search of her father.

  Turning her back on the ill-tempered and sleepy nun who had admitted her and was now waiting to lead her to an audience with the abbess, Janna hurried to Godric. “Are you quite sure you want me to take it all?” she asked, as she opened the drawstring of her purse.

  “Of course.” He carefully poured in the coins. Janna beamed her gratitude.

  “Ahem.” The sound of a throat being ostentatiously cleared warned her that the porteress had retraced her steps, and that they were being watched.

  “God be with you.” She touched Godric’s hand one last time. “And good luck. Take care of yourself, and thank you for everything.” She had so many reasons to be grateful to Godric; he had come to her aid on so many different occasions. “Mayhap we’ll meet again one day?” She tried to sound hopeful but knew she was not succeeding.

  “Ahem!” This time the throat-clearing was an ultimatum.

  Godric ignored the vigilant nun. “Be sure that I will come to you if ever you call, wherever you may be!” He seized hold of Janna’s hand through the bars, raised it to his lips and kissed it. “You know I would not leave you, Janna, not by choice. Not ever!”

  “I know.” Reluctantly, Janna disengaged her hand from his. “I know.” She swallowed hard over the lump of misery that had lodged in her throat, and hastily turned away. If only they could wed, if she could trust in his protection, she might have begged the porteress to unlock the gate and let her free to go to him. But she knew that even Godric, who would give his life for her, could not protect her at this time, nor could he help her to fulfill her quest. This was something she must do, and do alone. In truth, she preferred it this way, for she was not ready yet to commit her life, or her heart, to anyone’s keeping save her own. All the same, she felt a great dread for the future. Following her chosen path would take all her courage and strength. With reluctant steps, she returned to the porteress, who scowled at her. “I can’t think why you’ve come here,” the nun muttered, “dressed up in men’s clothes, and carrying on with that young man right here at the abbey gate. Who do you think you are?” She clucked her disapproval. “If you had not come from Dame Alice’s nephew and with a message for the abbess, be sure I would never have admitted you.”

  “I am grateful that you did, mistress,” Janna murmured.

  “Sister!” the nun snapped. “My name is Sister Brigid.”

  “And my name is Johanna.” Silence met Janna’s offer of friendship. With lips clamped into a disapproving line, the nun led Janna across an open yard to a building set on one side of the entrance to the church. She walked through a small parlor and rapped on a door. Together, she and Janna waited for an invitation to enter.

  “Come in.” The voice sounded weary, and rather impatient. Curious in spite of her low spirits, Janna followed Sister Brigid into the private quarters of the abbess.

  The receiving room was large and lit by torches held in sconces on the walls. Richly embroidered tapestries hung between them, their bright colors glowing in the light. A fat wax candle sat in a silver candlestick on a table illuminating a scroll of parchment. Janna stared in puzzlement, for the symbols inscribed on it looked different from those in the letter written by her fathe
r. These were set in long columns and divided by lines. She could not make sense of them at all. Her gaze moved on around the room. A gold cross hung above a small altar, exquisitely chased and decorated with colored gemstones. Stairs to one side led perhaps to quarters for the nobility, even royalty, who were rumored to stay here from time to time. There were several stools with fat cushions to soften hard wooden seats, while the box bed Janna glimpsed through an open door contained a thick mattress and was piled with more cushions plumped down on a warm, woolen covering. For certes, the abbess was living in great comfort and style. She wondered if the sisters of the abbey lived in the same comfort as their abbess.

  Fascinated, Janna dragged her gaze back to one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in the land. Her mother had once told her that Wiltune was one of the largest abbeys in England, with vast estates, mills and other resources spread over several shires. “The abbess is the king’s tenant-in-chief. She holds the entire barony in return for the service of five knights, should the king call for them in times of war,” Eadgyth had said. Janna wished she’d thought to question how the abbess managed to provide five knights, living as she did in a house full of women.

  At their entry, the abbess had risen from her work. She scowled suspiciously at Janna. “Who is this ruffian, and what do you mean by disturbing my peace so late at night?” She spoke in Norman French, addressing the question to Sister Brigid. It was clear she didn’t expect Janna to understand her. Janna bent her head, thinking it wise to pretend that the abbess was right.

  “She says she’s really a young woman, and she bears a message from the lord Hugh, nephew to Dame Alice of Babestoche Manor. I would not have admitted her else.” Sister Brigid’s face pinched into a disapproving frown. “She was accompanied by a youth, and he kissed her hand!” There couldn’t have been more venom in the nun’s voice if she’d accused Janna of dancing on the altar of Christ. She handed over the brief message signed with Hugh’s seal to the abbess, who perused it silently.

  “Johanna?” she said then, reverting to the Saxon language. She sat down once more, leaving Janna standing in front of her. “Daughter of the wortwyf, Eadgyth?”

  Janna knew a moment’s panic before she managed a reluctant reply. “Yes, Sister, uh…um…”

  “Mother Abbess. We were told you were dead, Johanna. The lord Hugh begged us to say a Mass for your soul.” The abbess’s expression had darkened into a thunderous frown. A sinking feeling told Janna what was coming next. She wished she’d thought to ask Hugh not to mention her name so that she could, once again, invent for herself a new identity. Now it was too late. She braced herself.

  “Out of the goodness of my heart, in Christ’s holy name, and in spite of your mother’s disgrace, I gave her the piece of land and the cot that was your home—and you repaid my generosity by burning it to the ground!” The abbess was practically spitting with rage.

  “No! No, I did not.” But Janna’s protest went unheeded.

  “You might not have cared to stay on there after your mother died, but there are many others who would have been grateful for that land and cot. How dare you destroy what I gave you so generously!”

  Generously? Janna opened her mouth to defend herself, then closed it again. It was useless to point out to this self-righteous, miserly old dragon that when Eadgyth had first moved in, the land had been rough and untilled and the cottage a tumbledown wreck. The midwife Aldith had told Janna how hard her mother had worked to repair the cot, and to turn the surrounding wilderness into the garden that had sustained them both. She and her mother had always worked hard, and had often gone hungry in order to pay the rent demanded by this greedy abbess, handing over silver coins and produce from their garden that they could ill-afford. The unsaid words almost choked Janna, yet she knew the abbess would not believe that it was the villagers who’d burned down her cot and who’d almost succeeded in burning her alive at the same time; not unless Janna told her all of the story, and perhaps not even then. But she could not speak up, she could not tell the truth, for there was far too much at stake, and so she stayed silent.

  “Not only that, but you led everyone to believe you had died in the fire! You have even disguised yourself as a youth.” The abbess’s tone was full of contempt. “Was that so you did not have to pay for the destruction of my property, and heriot for your mother’s death?”

  “I—No! No, that’s not true.”

  “The girl has coins to pay, Mother,” Sister Brigid piped up unexpectedly. “I saw her companion pour silver into her purse.” She flashed a spiteful glance at Janna. It was clear she thought the worst of her relationship with Godric. The abbess stopped abruptly. She ran her tongue over her top lip as she considered the possibilities. “The lord Hugh has asked me to give you shelter, and so I will,” she conceded, “but in turn I demand recompense for the cot and garden you have destroyed by your wanton action. And as your overlord, I also claim heriot for the death of your mother.”

  “That’s not f—” Janna’s outrage was stifled as Sister Brigid’s hand clamped hard on her arm.

  “It is the custom,” the nun reminded her.

  With an effort, Janna smoothed her face into calm acceptance, but inside she raged at the injustice. No wonder Wiltune was such a wealthy abbey! The midwife’s account of the abbess’s treatment of her mother should have warned her how avaricious and grasping she was. Janna was quite sure that Dame Alice had stayed true to her word that she herself would pay the heriot due, but it seemed the abbess did not scruple to be paid twice. Angrily, Janna untied her purse, pulled out a handful of silver and dropped it on the table in front of her. The abbess reached for it with eager hands.

  “There is also the matter of your food and shelter,” she said, not taking her eyes from Janna’s purse.

  Seething, Janna pulled out the last of the coins. “This is all I have, Mother Abbess,” she said. “The mementos I have left are for my own comfort, and are of value only to me.” She patted her purse, hearing the comforting crump of her father’s letter, feeling the lumpy trinkets, tokens of his affection for her mother; feeling, too, the small figurine she had found in the forest. On no account would she hand over any of her treasures. She would rather leave the abbey and face an uncertain and dangerous future than part with any one of them. She folded her fingers around the small figurine, taking comfort from the carved shape of the mother and her child. It gave her the strength to face the abbess and wait for her future to be spelled out.

  “Very well,” the abbess said grudgingly. She considered a moment and then said, “Harvest is about to begin, and extra hands are needed. You may stay so long as you are prepared to help in the fields, and do not disrupt the life of the abbey. We lead a simple life here, a life of contemplation of God and his mysteries. There is no place for those who do not believe in Him. Do you love the Lord God and His Son, Jesus Christ?”

  Faced with such an unexpected demand, Janna hesitated. She could lie and say yes. It would smooth her path and make her life a whole lot easier. Or she could be honest and say no. The one and only time she’d ever been into a church, Eadgyth had dragged her out in a rage against the priest’s preaching. She’d railed against him, calling him a narrow-minded bigot, an opinion Janna had shared, although in the end her mother’s actions had helped persuade the villagers to turn against them. She could not tell the abbess “Yes,” for it was not true. But nor could she say “No,” for then she would be thrown out of the abbey, left to the mercy of those who wished her harm. Even worse, she would lose her only chance of finding out more about her mother and, more importantly, learning how to read and to write so that she could make sense of her father’s letter. In that lay her salvation, the answer to all her hopes: the secret of her father, of her own heritage, and the chance of bringing to justice the man responsible for the murder of her mother.

  “Well?” the abbess demanded impatiently.

  “I am here because I don’t know Him,” Janna said slowly, sticking to the trut
h as closely as she could. “I am here to learn.”

  “Hmph.” The abbess gave her a narrow look full of suspicion. “You may stay here as a lay sister, for the moment. I am not prepared to accept you as a postulant in our convent. For one thing, you have no dowry.” Her eyes rested on the pile of silver coins on the table in front of her. She looked up then and had the grace to look slightly ashamed. “I will not accept you into our community until you have proved yourself fit to serve the Lord,” she amended. “You may live and work with our lay sisters. They tend the garden, do the cooking, keep the abbey clean and help out in the fields when necessary, leaving my sisters free to say their prayers, to worship the Lord, engage in contemplation, or keep busy with more important tasks on the Lord’s behalf. Be sure that I will keep close watch on you to ascertain if you are worthy of my trust.”

  “Thank you, Mother Abbess.” The words stuck in Janna’s throat. She bowed her head so that the abbess could not see her anger and dismay. I don’t have to stay here forever, just until my mission is complete, she reminded herself silently, taking some comfort from the fact that being locked within the walls of the abbey was not a life sentence.

  “That will be all. It is very late, almost time for the midnight office, and I still have my accounts to reckon.” The abbess turned to the porteress. “Take Johanna to the lay sisters’ dorter, Sister Brigid.” She fixed Janna with a steely gaze. “You will attend the Harvest Mass tomorrow morning with the lay sisters and our visitors. Sister Grace will speak to you afterward about your duties while you are here. I expect you to work hard and earn your keep.” She turned back to her papers, dismissing Janna and Sister Brigid with a flick of her hand.

  Janna bobbed a curtsy and followed Sister Brigid back out across the courtyard toward the gatehouse. Her eyes were drawn to the flare lighting the gate, but there was no sign, now, of Godric. She felt abandoned, bereft, as she stared at the empty place where once he had stood.

 
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