BOND OF BLOODby Roberta Gellis
On her fifteenth birthday Leah was told that she was to be married. The first man to look at her was to her eyes ancient, hard and grim. She was terrified. Her relief on learning she was to be married to his son made a scarred face and a bad limp nothing to fear. What puzzled her at first was her mother’s badly hidden displeasure at her growing love for the man chosen for her. Before she could discover the ugly cause, that puzzle faded into insignificance because Cain took her from the rural fastness in which she had been raised to Court in London. There she was plunged with little warning into the maelstrom of politics surrounding Henry of Anjou’s attempts to wrest the throne of England from Stephen of Blois.
Edwina, Lady Pembroke, looked with pleasure on her daughter who was teaching a maidservant to spin. It was the twenty-fifth day of April in the year 1147, and Leah was just fifteen years old that day. Her figure was entering its first blossom, and even the ill-cut homespun gown revealed high young breasts, a narrow waist, and rounded hips. She was not a great beauty, but to her mother's intense pleasure she had kept the fair hair and white skin of her childhood, and her large eyes had long silky lashes that she used unconsciously with great effect. The girl's gentle manner and soft sweet voice also had great charm, but Edwina felt that these would be wasted on a hard man so much older than her daughter.
"Do you know that you are fifteen today, Leah?"
"Of course I know it, Mother."
"Well, I have come to tell you something of great importance. In a few weeks you will be married."
The spindle dropped from the girl's fingers. "To whom, Mama?"
"To Cain, Lord Radnor, son to the Earl of Gaunt. Do not ask questions now, child. Dress yourself in the blue sarcenet bliaut and the tan tunic and come to the hall. His lordship wishes to see you."
Leah stood up obediently, but she was powerless to follow her mother's commands. She had dreamt, like all girls, of marriage; dreamt of a home much as her mother had described, where there was peace and happiness, where she would be her husband's "lady" and life would be one long alternation of fairs and tourneys. But Leah was fifteen now and knew that those were dreams, not life. No knight had come to court her, to ask for her sleeve to carry as a favor. Dream knights, knights one heard the minstrels sing of, or knights that one read about in a rare romance borrowed from the convent or monastery, did such things. Real marriage was a hard fact; her life itself might depend upon her husband's whim, and there would be no mother to hide her and protect her.
"Leah!" Edwina's voice was sharp. "Dress quickly and bite your lips before you come down. They are white and you look sickly. This is no time to be a silly chit."
She saw, however, that the timid girl was shocked, and called the maids to help her. Leah was the one great passion in Edwina's life, the one person she really loved, and she longed to tell her not to be frightened. No matter what kind of monster Cain of Radnor was, Leah would not need to endure him long. Doubtless if Pembroke's plans succeeded, Leah would be a widow very soon after she became a wife. Edwina did not offer the assurance; Leah was too young. She would not be able to behave naturally with the man if she knew she was to be the bait that would draw him to his death.
Leah's homespun gown was cast aside and in its place a soft wool tunic of tan, high-necked and long-sleeved, was pulled over her head. This was followed by a blue bliaut that the girls laced as tight as possible at the sides to pull in the waist still further. The underclothes and shoes they left alone for it was unlikely, though not impossible, that Leah would be asked to undress. Finally they pushed her, trembling, down the stairs, coming to the foot themselves to peer curiously into the hall. On the last step Leah remembered her mother's order and bit her soft lips until the blood came back to them. She came into the hall slowly, with downcast eyes as she had been trained to do, although she was quivering with curiosity as she walked to the fireplace.
"Drink up, drink up," the Earl of Pembroke was saying, and then as he saw her, "Ah, here she is. Look up, girl."
Leah obeyed with the promptness of habit, and her eyes fell on the scarred and grizzled warrior standing beside her father. Only years of submission and terror held her still as the old man reached out and grasped her arm to pull her closer.
"She favors you," he said, whistling through broken and missing teeth. "She will be well enough when a couple of children have put flesh on her bones. Well, well, she is as you said, and for my part, I am satisfied. She understands, of course, and is willing?"
"She will do as she is told," Pembroke replied. "I have bred no crotchets in her. She is handy and biddable and her mother says she is well instructed in housewifery."
"What is your name, child?"
Leah started. She had not known that anyone else was present, but the voice came from a seat thrown into shadow by the glare of the fire. It was a low husky voice—a priest, Leah thought, and swallowed convulsively.
"Leah, her mother called her—that she might be fruitful," Pembroke answered.
"So she told me," the voice spoke again. Leah strained her eyes to see into the dimness. "But I would hear the girl speak. She is not simple, is she?"
"No, no! Curse you, Leah, open your foul mouth. You chatter enough when I would you were silent, but when you are asked to speak you are mute."
"Yes, father," the girl whispered. "I am only surprised. I did not know."
Slowly a huge form rose from the seat and limped painfully forward into the light. Leah had the impression of enormous power, of bitter dark eyes, and of shabby clothing. "Let her go, father," the younger man said. "Come here, Leah, for I would look at you." His husky voice was very gentle and gave her a little confidence so that, when the old man dropped her arm, Leah followed willingly enough to the window embrasure.
"How old are you?"
"Fifteen today, my lord."
"And already a famous housewife." There was a faint note of mocking laughter in the voice, but when Leah, stung, looked up, the face was grave enough. "Come, I will not hurt you, and, although I am no beauty, you must learn to accept my face," he continued as Leah hastily dropped her eyes again.
"My lord," she murmured, "I am unaccustomed to much company. Usually when knights come to visit my father I must stay in the women's quarters."
She did look at him then, however, and saw that a once-handsome countenance was marred by one scar that drew up his mouth in a perpetual bitter smile and another which crossed his forehead and divided one brow in half. When she could detach her attention from those startling marks, she noted that he had a dark, weather-beaten complexion and a full head of rather lank black hair, that the lips, had they not been set so firmly, would have been full and well contoured, and that the large dark eyes were not only beautiful but held, in that unguarded moment, a rather soft expression of sadness.
"You need not always call me 'my lord,'" he was saying, "indeed, I have a wish to hear you say my name."
"But I do not know it."
There was a moment's silence, and Leah could see the eyes and the mouth harden. "I am Cain, Lord Radnor."
"You! Oh, then it is you—" Leah sat down suddenly on the window seat.
She did not see the angry shade that passed over her future husband's face, and it was just as well for that would have frightened her badly. As it was, her relief brought her smile and, in a moment, her laugh trilled out. Her laugh was one of her greatest assets; it was like the song of a blackbird, a tinkling, musical cascade heard far too seldom. Unselfconscious in her relief, she put out her hand to touch his sleeve.
"How glad I am. I thought—" She left that unfinished, merely repeating with a sigh, "How glad I am."
This man was certainly no beauty, but he was younger than the other and spoke gently. Leah looked at Cain squarely again, color flooding back into her face and making her glow into something approaching real beauty. For a moment she was surprised by his puzzled expression, and then realized that her remarks must have seemed incomprehensible to him. She laughed again, explaining.
"When I came in, I saw only your father. I thought he was the man I was to marry. I—it is not my place to object, of course, but I was afraid—I thought he was a little—a little elderly."
It was Lord Radnor's turn to laugh then, and he too sat down, grimacing as he took his weight off his feet. "And if it had been he that was to be your husband?"
"I would be obedient to my father in whatever he bid me, but I am—I hope—I do not know, but I think, perhaps it is easier to please a younger man. My lord—I mean Cain—what an odd name. I would think …" Her voice drifted away because of the scowl that spread over Lord Radnor's face.
"Anill-favored name, but my own." The husky voice was still low, but there was a snarl in it now.
"Nay, my lord," Leah touched his sleeve again, but timidly this time, her color fading slowly, "it cannot be ill-favored to me." She could say no more. An angry man was terrifying.
"So pretty a compliment must needs make me reconciled." His tone was clear then, and sharp with sarcasm, and Leah felt crushed and helpless. Her eyes filled with easy tears and she looked away. For a moment the silence hung between them, and Leah was startled when Cain spoke again in his normal voice, a little uncertainty in the words.
"I am sorry. That was unkind. Nay, I pray you, do not weep. I was only—I pray you, do not weep." Cain moved closer on the window seat.
They had, in that place, all the privacy that the great hall afforded, because the window opening in the walls, five feet thick at that level of the keep, formed almost a private room around them.
"Come,” he went on, “you shall have your revenge for my unkindness. Set me a task, or ask for—for—oh, Lord what do women like—a jewel, and you shall have it."
Leah looked at him. To her surprise, for she had expected only a frown or the sly expression her father wore when he set a trap for her, Lord Radnor's face was perfectly serious, even concerned. The thought that her lord and master should offer her "revenge" for a harsh word was so ludicrous to her that she was surprised into laughter again.
The sunlight filtered in a haze through skins scraped thin and oiled that covered the window to keep out the April chill; it made an aureole of light of the fine ends of fair hair that escaped from Leah's plaits and warmed her enough to set free a delicate odor of lavender that seemed to float about her like the shimmering light. Leah could not know her own charm with the teardrops sparkling on her long lashes, and she did not understand the curious expression that crossed Lord Radnor's face, but she took courage for it was certainly not anger. In reply to his repeated request she smiled shyly and shook her head.
"Will you cherish your hurt, then?"
"But I have taken no hurt. I was only frightened when you frowned, for I am sure that if I make you angry my father will—will kill me." Leah was telling the literal truth when she said that, for if the plans fell through because of something she did her father would kill her.
Lord Radnor's mouth hardened again. He intensely disliked Gilbert Fitz Gilbert, the Earl of Pembroke, and the daughter's fear did not improve matters. "No one will do you any hurt. As we are betrothed, your care is in my hands. Do you but please me and all will go well. And be not so timid for a frown. You will find that I frown often enough about matters indifferent to you."
Oh, God, Leah thought, no matter is indifferent to a wife.
Does not my father beat my mother when the crops are poor? Is not the will of God a matter indifferent to my mother? And yet, do not the blows sting just as shrewdly when the matter is indifferent? But she had training enough in concealing such thoughts, and she continued to smile.
There was a pause. Cain studied the slightly downcast face of his future bride. He had not wanted this marriage, but he was a good deal better pleased than he had expected to be by the girl, her gentleness and soft beauty striking a chord to which he could not help responding. Leah racked her brains for further ground for conversation, inquiring politely at last how long her lord would stay.
"This night and perhaps another. I would not have come at all except that it was agreed that the betrothal should take place on the morrow." Lord Radnor stopped suddenly and became conscious that he had been extremely rude and tactless. "I should not have said that, I suppose, but I do not mean that I did not wish to meet you, of course. These are dangerous times in Wales, and if a full-scale rebellion is to be averted I must keep close watch on my men and lands. I can ill spare even these few days … although I am glad now …"
"I hear very little of these matters, my lord."
"And you are little enough interested, I warrant." Radnor smiled, wondering briefly what most women thought about, if they thought at all.
"No, no, I am interested,” Leah protested. “If you would but have the patience to pardon my ignorance and explain simply. I do, indeed, wish to know what is happening in the world, but my father never speaks of aught but hunting and gaming and my mother is so glad to be at peace that she will say no word of war. I remember when I was a little girl that there was much fighting and the house was full of strange knights always and my mother wept all the time. Why are these dangerous times?"
Lord Radnor passed a hand across his face, gently touching the scar near his mouth, seeking for simple terms to explain a complicated situation to this child who was watching him with an expression of eager interest. There was no need for him to tell her anything, of course, and he had not the smallest expectation that she would understand him since women, with the exception of she-devils like Joan of Shrewsbury, never did understand anything. He was amused, however, by her eagerness, like a child begging for a story, and it could do no harm to tell her.
To Leah, hearing of what was happening in the country around her was almost as great a marvel as reading a new romance, for news traveled very slowly and, since Pembroke stayed very seldom at the keep to which he had banished his wife, often missed them completely. Leah's life was filled solely with the household chores of the castle, and perhaps that should have been sufficient for her, but Lord Radnor like everyone else underestimated how much her wits had been sharpened by living with the father she had. She was very capable of understanding, and she longed for the stimulation of information beyond her household chores.