Authors: Roberta Gellis
Copyright Â© 1987, 2011 by Roberta Gellis
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Cover illustration by Franco Accornero
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Originally published in 1987 by The Berkley Publishing Group, New York.
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My mother was a castle whore. My father, Sir William Fermain, holder of Jernaeve keep, took the whore Berta to his bed in spite of his wife. That poor lady had borne my father a third daughter who survived only a few hours, like the other babes before her. Once her lord had taken her, my mother touched no other man, and in the third month of her master's keeping she conceived me. Moreover, even after the lord called her to him no more, she remained chaste, and for the whole time she suckled me also.
My mother, like most of the people of Jernaeve and the lands beholden to it, was fair of hair and light of eye, but I am darkâlike my father. Yet, because my mother was what she was, he would not acknowledge me even as a bastard of his get.
I only learned these things later. When I was very young, three or four years old, I only knew that the dark man in fine clothing hated me, and that if I ran or hid or wept, I would be beaten, but if I defied him or fought him, he would only cuff me once or twice and then let me be. I am accounted a brave man. I learned that from my father's handlingâbut there are better ways to learn.
In those early years, before I understood what rank meant, I often begged my mother to leave the keep, or if she would not, to give me to one of the serf families in the outer bailey. I would not have grieved much about being parted from my mother. By the time I could conceive that there were other places to live, most of her hopes had soured. She was plying her trade again, and I was a nuisance. She kept me clean and fed but preferred my absence to my presence. In any case, although I did not know it then, she had not the power to be rid of me. My father would not acknowledge meâbut he would not let me go either. The lady of the keep had lost two more babes over those three or four years, and little as Sir William Fermain liked a whore's child, I was a living son.
Moreover, as the years passed, I came to look more and more like a Fermain. I could not have displayed the aquiline nose or the square, stubborn chin of the Fermains in those early years, but my skin was already darker than that of the local people, my hair so dark a brown as to be safely called black, and my eyes the same. I had grown happier also because my father had ceased to torment meânot that I ever grew to feel anything for him other than fear and angry resentment. The reason I became less a target for his cruelty was that from the first time an old man-at-arms put a blunt wooden sword into my hand, I knew, as if by instinct, how to handle it. It was the same with horses. I was running among their feet out of love for them as soon as I was steady on my own, and riding was my greatest pleasure from the moment I was set astride.
Had my father ignored me completely, I would have been perfectly happy, but as my skills in horsemanship and swordsmanship increased, he watched me often with an expression that made me uneasy, and he brought others to look at me. One man I recall in particular, then only because he looked so much like my father that I was doubly afraid, but since then for many reasons.
I was six years old at that time. I remember clearly because one day my mother gave me a small round metal helmet and a leather jerkin sewn all over with metal scales. She told me my age then and that the helm and hauberk were gifts from my father. She smiled at me and kissed me tooâa thing I could not remember her ever doingâand said I would make her a great lady yet. She was then suckling another boy child, one whose father she could not name, but she let him scream on the heap of straw where he lay while she dressed me in my father's gift.
Many years later I realized that the gift and the new attention he was paying me made my mother think he intended to recognize me soon. The lady of the keep was great with child again, and my mother believed that when that babe died, my father would give up hope and make me his heir. Poor woman, her hopes were never to be realized because my father's wife at last bore a babeâa daughterâwho clung to life. I saw Audris, who had been baptized in haste, since she was not expected to live, only a few hours after she was born. She was a tiny, scrawny creature, but strangely beautiful, brought to my mother to nurse because my father's lady wife was dying. The memory of how she lookedâof all the sights and sounds of that nightâare very vivid because I was so frightened at first.
It was late at night and I was wakened by the men with torches who accompanied the woman carrying the whimpering babe. Being wakened would not have impressed me; it was no unusual thing because of my mother's trade, but the crowd of finely dressed people and their loud, excited voices as they discussed the lady's coming death branded each detail on my mind. Young as I was, it was all too clear that they were glad of the poor lady's perilous condition. I had never even seen her close, yet that grieved me. Now I know that it was no dislike of the lady herself that bred such callousness. What they desired was that my father be free to wed a different woman, one who could breed him a strong heir.
I saw, too, the indifference with which the babe, Audrisâthey told my mother her name; I do not know whyâwas thrust at my mother. The child was still wet with the water of baptism and carelessly wrapped in an old shawl though it was autumn and the night was chill. My mother listened to all they said, for they spoke before us as if we were beasts with no understandingâor, perhaps, they thought their language would be strange to us. But a whore must learn the tongue in which the men who use her speak, and my father had seen to it that I was tutored in proper French and used it.
Initially my mother had taken Audris with an indifference equal to that with which the babe was handed over, and I could feel tears sting my eyes. Here was another such as I, of no account to anyone, unwanted, unloved. But as my mother listened to the talk of those who had invaded our hut near the stable wall, a strange expression crossed her face. I was the only one who saw, for she had lowered her head in seeming submission to the high-born ones. In Berta's eyes there was a malicious gleam and an immovable stubbornness in the set of her mouth. As soon as those who had come were gone, she put Audris to her breastâand the babe sucked. Then my mother laughed softly and bade me bring my good clean shirt to her. With that, she patted Audris dry and wrapped her more carefully in a clean shift of her own, holding her close to warm her.
When Audris had taken her fillâand it was a good meal she made for a creature so tinyâmy mother patted her until she brought up wind, then made me rise from my pallet, which was warm from my body, and laid Audris therein, covering her with my blanket. She threw her own blanket over me to keep me from growing chilled and bade me watch by the babe, with stern words about what I should do if she cried or began to spit up what she had eaten. Then she made up the fire so that it blazed in the hearth like a fire of winter. I saw Audris better in that light, and she looked so strange in the sudden flare and sudden dark that I had to see her better. Finally, my mother snatched up my half brother and went out with him.
I knew I would never see him again, but that did not trouble me. My mother had so taken the other two babes born to her down to the serfs in the lower bailey. When she took the first child, I had never been there, but my mother told me, when I cried for the babe she had carried away, that there was always a woman who had lost a babe among them or among the people of the village beyond the wall or on the outlying farms. It was the first I had heard of any place other than the keep and the inner bailey, and the tale had distracted me from the loss of my toyâfor it had been an amusement to watch the comic expressions on the face of the little one and see the wavering of his arms and legs and the attempts to move himself. I was so lonely in those days, forbidden to play with the other children and constantly in fear of my father. By the time Audris was brought to us, I was accustomed to losing my siblings and I had enough, in my practice of arms and riding, to fill my days.
Before she left, my mother had lit the lamp with a long sliver of wood first thrust into the blaze of fire in the pit in the earthen floor. When I was younger and the little leaping flame from the twist of linen set into the soft fat in the pottery bowl had fascinated me, I had been forbidden to touch the lamp. I gave that only a glancing thought now. My mother would not be back for some time, I knew, and I had to see Audris more clearly. A stool lifted me high enough to reach the low shelf on which the lamp was set, and I brought it nigh and examined my half sister in the flickering light.
I could see at once that she was different from the babes my mother had borne. Unlike them, she was not red, nor was her head bald and strangely pointed. Her cheeks were very pale, almost as if no blood coursed under her skin, and she had hair, silvery white. And as I gazed at her, she opened her eyes, which were not a cloudy blue but clear and very, very light, almost silver like her hair. I had never seen so lovely a babe; my mother's were all ugly when they were newborn, though each had a certain charm even then, and they grew handsome after a week or two. Audris, though, was like a faery thing; I shuddered looking at her, wondering if she were perchance a changeling. It could have happened, I knew, because no one cared about her and likely no one had been watching.
So fearful was that thought that the flame shook in my hand and I lifted the lamp away; Audris cried out then, not a raucous howl like my mother's other babes, but a soft mewling. I made haste to climb the stool again and set the lamp back on its shelf so I could pat the child silent as my mother had bidden me. In stroking her, I must have pushed aside the fold of cloth that held one arm, and she worked it free and found one of my fingers around which her little hand closed softly. I had had that experience before, but this was different somehow, partly because Audris's grip was so much gentler than that of the other babes but also, I think, because I knew my mother could not give away this child, and I hoped I would have someone with whom to play. It did not occur to me then that, being the lord's daughter, Audris might merit a finer wet nurse than my mother or might be kept from such as I. I had seen how little she was regarded and did not then understand the difference between a whore's bastard and the legitimate daughter of the lord of the keep.
Nonetheless, we were not separated. Partly that was owing to how sure my father was that this child too would die, and partly it was owing to the fact that he was busy seeking another wife, out of whom he expected strong sons, who would make a daughter near worthless. He was much away, and I remember my joy in those months and remember also feeling that it was Audris who had somehow brought all my happiness with her. Nor was that all childish foolishness. The nurse of a nobleman's child has many privileges and an easy life; thus, my mother did not wish to have Audris taken from her, and she closed her door to the men who were used to finding it open. That pleased me, for they often disturbed my sleep with their grunting and groaning and thrashing about, and Audris herself, as she grew stronger, amused me more and more.
Audris talked and walked early. It was a strange thing to see and hear, for she was very tiny, no larger than other babes months younger. She was my pass also to lovely places like the keep garden, where my mother would often set me to watching her while she washed clothes or did other tasks. And with Audris, I was free to play by the hearth in the great hall, for we had all moved from our hut to the third floor of the south tower in the keep a few weeks after Audris came to us. My father had come to my mother's hut through the first snow of winter, choking in the smoky interior while he stared at Audris, who was squalling lustily at that momentâher voice having grown strongerâand beckoned my mother out. When she returned, she was laughing softly but triumphantly.
“I have won what I played for. Today we move into the keep.” She spoke in her native tongueâmine was French, for though I understood English, I was rarely allowed to speak it.
And then, during the dog days of August, my father died. Perhaps he brought home the sickness from some keep or town that he had visited. I knew nothing of it at the time he died; I have often wondered since I have been a man whether I would have been glad or whether his loss would have shaken me. I never loved him, yet he had been a central core in my life, and I might have felt strange to know he was gone forever. But by the time I heard he was dead, I was too terrified to care.
My father's sickness had spread throughout the keep and all had fallen into chaos. I knew something was wrong because my mother began to cook our meals on the small hearth in our chamber, and she kept us close within our tower. She told me angrily, when I begged to go out to my lessons, that the man who had taught me was dead and that so many were sick there were not folk enough to tend them.
I later learned that when my father's strong hand was gone and there were none to bid them nay, most of those who still had their health had fled. They carried the seeds of the plague with them, so that the village and outlying farms were also reaped by Death's scythe, the sickness lingering some weeks. That was why Audris's uncle, Sir Oliver Fermain, delayed so long in coming to Jernaeve. I believe that if he had known Audris was alive, he would have come at once. But hearing of the deadliness of the disease, he must have thought so small and seemingly weak a child had died; thus, there was no sense in exposing his family and himself.
At the time, however, all I knew was that I was alone with no one to help me or tell me what to do. Those I had depended on were gone, for my mother had disappeared and the man-at-arms who taught me had died, and those I approached later drove me away. My mother was also dead then, but I did not know that either because she had left the towerâfor what reason, I will never knowâtelling me only to stay within and to keep Audris with me. She had gone down to the village, where she had been slain, I suppose by someone who thought she carried sickness.
I obeyed my mother's order all the first day she was gone, for there was some food left from the breaking of our fast and I shared that with Audris for our dinner. By evening we were very hungry and Audris was crying, so I dared creep down the stairs. The hall was empty, the fire deadâa thing I had never seen before because Jernaeve was stone built, and even in the hottest days of summer the hall was cold. I do not think I have ever known such fear, not even when my father beat me for no reason. To be alone, all alone! It was unthinkable. In those few moments I looked death in the face, believing the whole keep was empty save for Audris and me.