La Bastarda (Book One of The Trastámara Series)

By K.M. Guerin

General fiction, Historical fiction

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9 mins

La Fija Bastarda

(The Bastard Daughter)

7 November, in the Year of Our Lord, 1358
Discretion was key. They had chosen an inn near the poorest part of Flines, one where the young girl and her 'aunties' would be overlooked on the way back to their unnamed town. “Going home for Christmastide,” they said, though it was early November. It was simple to think of a different reason why the trio bunked at the inn, a rumor the older women had encouraged: pay enough gold, and no one questions your story; pay more, and they will lie for you. Patrons who heard anything coming from the room upstairs had been told about the new girl “learning the ropes”, complete with a wink and a smile. The old men and poorer merchants pulled back their rotting skin to show matching teeth, dead men's anticipatory leers. Most of them had had every whore in the place, knew every sore on the tired old women's privy parts, so fresh meat fetched a high price. A whore did need to be instructed before most men would take their pleasures in her, and so the men waited and ignored the sounds from above.

Meanwhile, the little thing on the bed was certainly dying. The midwives exchanged a solemn glance, not even trying to hide it; the wretched creature barely drew breath, let alone saw or heard anything.

Oh, she had been pretty once, and the two women still heard echoes of her tinkling laugh as she helped chase chickens around an innkeeper's garden or herded local children back to their mothers, her long blonde hair trailing behind her while she ran. They found it hard to reconcile the girl of their memories with the barely-living corpse on the bed. Her beautiful golden hair had matted to her head with sweat, while her pale skin, once flushed with pain, had dulled to a sickly green hue. The girl's once vibrant hazel eyes had clouded over, their bright metallic sheen muddied with a grayish tone and left the same color as a drowned cadaver bloated from the river. The most fatal thing was her size: she was still very much a child in build, and her hips had yet to widen for childbirth.

Her baby would not budge.

The women had tried everything of which they could think: turning the babe, oiling the birth canal, praying to the Virgin and St. Margaret, even bouncing the girl in sheets and pushing on her stomach had not worked. Oh, how the little thing on the bed had wailed, screaming of being broken in two until she lost the ability to speak. She had pushed and pulled and mouthed prayers as well, squatting over the birthing stool they had smuggled into the room, but to no avail: the babe could not come, no matter how much its mother shrieked.

The poor young girl had faded into a stupor, and would never come out of it. Now, the midwives' job was to watch for Death in her silent, shallow breaths; dead, vacant eyes; cold, graying skin; and her chest, no longer moving.

The senior midwife put her hand in front of the girl's mouth, waiting for a breath that never came, before wrapping the younger midwife in her arms with a sob. After a moment, the pair evacuated the birthing chamber with faces haggard from both exhaustion and sorrow, their departure a cue for the surgeon waiting outside the door, who swept in as they left. The man's breath caught in his throat at the sight of the mother-to-be on the bed, her belly distended from her pregnancy. He had seen small mothers, of course, and had known the age of the girl, but she was tiny even for her youth. He crossed himself, staggered by the fact someone would have bedded an obvious child, and leaned on the shut door to catch his breath. Not for the first time, he wondered how the Creator could be so cruel.

He could not ponder for long, as he had work to do, and he had no right or reason to question the Almighty.

Cutting into the flesh of the corpse, he prayed for forgiveness and that the babe would still be living. In normal circumstances, he would have never done such a thing, but in normal circumstances, he did not have the chance to help deliver a child of royalty. Down, down he sliced, into the mysteries of womankind; while time was not on his side, any haste could prove fatal to the child. After what felt like hours, he felt a swollen foot covered in mucous and blood, which he brought closer to the light. It seemed so blue in color and his heart sank at the realization: too late. He paused to rest, relaxing his shoulders though he not even realizing he had tensed up.

The toe twitched.

A faint stirring of hope flickered inside his breast and he cut a wider hole, working again to free the tiny captive. Feet, legs, abdomen and cord, torso, arms, and finally the poor babe's head popped free of its prison, and the learned man looked at the child to ascertain its wholeness and sex. It was a delicate newborn, and if he had not known better, he would have though himself holding a fine poppet. Wrapping the child in a piece of linen, he began to scrub at its skin with the cloth, using a finger to swipe the mouth for debris – he was a father seven times over and grandfather of twelve, used to doing such things on babies and careless older children as well. The baby attempted to suckle, and he failed at stopping the grin from breaking across his face, the first smile in the room since long before the girl's waters had broken. In the name of discretion, he pulled up the sheet on the mother to cover the horrific carvings he had done to the mother, prior to yelling for the midwives.

They bustled in to find him cradling the newborn close to his body for warmth, its skin a faint purple in tinge and growing more pink by the second. They grabbed the babe from his hands, impatient to begin the task of caring for it, while the surgeon excused himself to meet his employer.

The man waited outside, his agitated countenance trained on the door. The surgeon's employer was not the father of the child, but the a trusted confidant and servant, as marked by his fine clothing and educated demeanor. As always, the surgeon bowed, his eyes traveling to the quartered fleur de lis on the shorter man's breast. For the hundredth time, the physician wondered the fellow's name, but kept his thought to himself; as a doctor, discretion and secrecy had been his companions for many years.

“The babe lives, monsieur, but the mother...”

“I assumed such, once they called you in,” replied the man with a careless wave of his caramel-colored hand. His accent was difficult to understand except by trained ears used to it, slipping into a snarl at times but also capable of taking on a melodious tone. He claimed to be a servant of a minor Aragonese lord who wore the symbol of France herself as his arms, yet his accent was much too guttural to be a born-and-raised true Frenchman, Spaniard, or even Italian. If the surgeon was honest with himself, he believed the man an Anglo servant of a Portuguese prince, but for the amount of gold The Spaniard and his mysterious master had already paid, the good doctor did not care if they were creatures from the depths of Hell. “A pity. One of my master's favorites: sweet girl from a good family, voice of an angel. Alas, he was much too eager and bedded her too soon. Is the child a boy?”

“A girl, monsieur,” replied the surgeon with another bow, surprised at the information the other man had given. An individual of few words, when The Spaniard decided to reveal something, he did so after weighing all the options. It had been much the same when the doctor had been hired months before, The Spaniard revealing to the physician only as they arrived on-site that he had procured the doctor's services for a birth where the mother had a minuscule chance of survival.

“One dies, another is born.” The Spaniard shrugged. “At least my master will be pleased. He loves all of his children, no matter on which side of the blanket they were born.” A small pouch made from a scrap of Italian velvet worked its way into the surgeon's palm. “One for your troubles-” A second appeared. “-And your successes.” The surgeon bowed and excused himself, knowing when he was no longer needed. He knew not to bother with arranging a disposal of the body nor the care of the child, all things with which the other man would deal. As the surgeon walked into the night, he found himself forgetting The Spaniard's facial features and words, only allowing himself to recall the delivery of the child and the pale, haunting eyes of her mother, though the cold, deep blue of other man's eyes would keep him up after dark. After a while, the two colors blended together in his memories, though the nightmares would continue to wake him.
After all, discretion was everything.

A few hours later in an alcove of the town's cathedral, a crippled holy man recited prayers over the corpse of a small, pretty wife with golden hair. The old priest had seen much in his years, and was used to clandestine burials, but the cloaked man who came to him had seemed more down-on-his-luck than a scoundrel, requiring a private burial for his beloved due to poverty judging by his threadbare attire. The deceased girl seemed so small in appearance though her widower said she had been but seventeen years old; obviously, her size and the strain of childbirth had been what killed her. The old man watched as the dead girl's husband kissed her colorless lips moments before her entombment in a nameless, pauper's grave, a tear falling onto her pallid cheek from his shadowed face as he cradled their newborn. The chaplain gave a melancholy smile at the affection the man showed for his young wife. Love such as his was rare and should have lasted a lifetime, but le Dieu Seigneur worked in mysterious ways and sometimes seemed cruel when He did.

The bridegroom had decided upon staying to see the job done, insisting he needed to do so as one last fulfillment of their marriage vows. Once the gravedigger had set the final shovel full of dirt over the girl's grave, her widower grasped the priest's palsied hand, depositing coin into the palm as he did so. The man of the cloth shivered as the eyes of the younger man happened to catch the candlelight for the first time since they met.

“Merci, mon Père, for your kindness in my time of need.” With an air of finality, he tucked the babe under his cloak and turned to leave; the darkness of his cape hid them both in the shadows, and they vanished. The wrinkled man shuddered, drawing his thick cloak around him for protection against the frigidity of the night before heading indoors to warm himself before a fire. Long before he finished his first glass of wine the priest had forgotten the widower's face, but the briefest glance had burned those deep sapphire eyes into his dying memory. The chilling lack of grief in them had convinced the man of the cloth that behind those eyes lay the mind of a killer, and he fell into a fitful sleep still haunted by their gaze.

At the very same moment in a modest inn not so far away, a pair of eyes the color of the moonless sky above watched the flame of the candle on the table in front of them flicker with every breath. Don Enrique Alfonso de Trastámara was a patient man, Deus sabe, otherwise he would have been dead, but he knew the night ahead of him would bring only bad tidings. Don Enrique sat in another French inn in another French town, no different than all of the other inns he had ever visited. He who had once been the guest of kings and the son of a king himself, fled from village to village in relative hardship compared to the trappings of his youth. The impoverished towns blurred together so much he sometimes swore he had stayed in a single town as he bounced between courts. The waiting drove him mad with worry, but he was powerless to do more than breathe and run his hands through his hair, cringing when a strand of hair tangled around it and tore from his scalp. Unwinding the thread of honey-brown from his fingers, he returned his gaze to the candle.

Inhale – flicker.

Exhale – flicker.

Inhale – flicker.

An exhale harder than the rest caused the room to plunge into darkness as his carelessness snuffed out the flame; he fumbled in the dark for a flint to relight it, all the while using curses that would have driven a fishwife to blush. A faint tap on the heavy wooden door to his room gave him reason to pause in his action, however. Pulling up his cloak to shadow his hair and face below the eyes, he moved towards the entry.

In truth, Enrique was not supposed to answer it, but he had made the mistake of concocting a back story for himself: to the locals, his room contained a Maure merchant from Al-Andalus running from the political upheaval in his home country. He had figured the fear of the Moors would have kept most everyone away, not expecting the story to bite him as hard in the backside as it had. Someone had claimed the Maure with the Spanish name had the coin to buy or sell anything, so every merchant's wife and beggar alike wanted to see his wares or sell their most valuable possessions, such as a scrap of worn cloth supposedly torn from a saint's corpse or a “family heirloom” worth less than the grime on Don Enrique's shoes, and he had not been able to stem the flow of visitors since he had bought his room. If he would have still been a guest of royalty, he would not have needed to resort to such charades nor deal with such distractions, but as the tides of the oceans changed, so did the tides of royal favor.

Battles won, battles lost, each brought the gain and depletion of patronage and resources, and too many failures would result in the worst deprecation of all: the forfeiture of his own life. As the Aragonese king cooled towards him and considered trying to take the crown of Castilla for himself, Don Enrique heard of the plots to remove himself from the playing field; at the same time, he had learned another opening to the French king had appeared for him in the form of an old war friend singing his praises, a man whom he had served beside in the French armies yes a few years prior. The Castilian would never waste such an opportunity, and so Don Enrique Alfonso, conde de Trastámara, Lemos y Sarria, Señor de Noreña, Cabrera y Ribera, became Fernando, the secretive morisco merchant.

“Hello, hello!” he cried in heavily-accented French, forcing himself to trip over the pronunciation. “I am Fernan-”

“I've returned.”

The Castilian recognized the voice – after years of friendship, he could not recall a time when he did not have the guidance of his mastermind and closest ally, Juan de Borgoña. Juan was not his real name of course, nor was he from Borgoña, but Don Enrique refused to think of the man's real name or background to prevent a slip of the tongue. Juan de Borgoña spoke of an unassuming man, a knight's son or even a page boy, not of a man well known throughout the courts of the continent, a man who took time from leading armies between the French and English to act as a servant for a foolish pretender, Enrique thought for the thousandth time, vowing to someday show the man his appreciation.

“Come in.” The false accent stayed in place, though he had lowered the volume of his voice; the two of them would speak their mixture of French and Castilian once they entered the safety of the room, but outside of its walls Enrique had to put on a show. De Borgoña entered, closing the door and locking it behind himself, while Enrique moved to the center of the room and prayed to Deus no one nearby understood them.

“What news, old friend?” he asked, now speaking in his native tongue but still at a low volume. De Borgoña pulled his cloak to the side, bringing out a small bundle. The Castilian glanced at it, jerking away when it shifted. “Deus myo, I wasn't expecting... You have the child?”

“Yes, vuestra merçed, Your Grace.”

“So that means Jeanne-”

“I'm sorry, Your Grace.”

“And her kin didn't want the child?”

“They repudiated the poor girl when she started showing, and had no intention of keeping her offspring. Claimed they're a disgrace to the family name – a whore and her bastard.”

Guilt flashed across Don Enrique's features at the words, for a little girl paid too high of a price because he would not put aside his wife. “She's been alone all this time?”

“Seven months disowned, but not alone. They put her into a convent and ordered the child abandoned upon birth, but I have connections and I made sure she traveled with a few midwives for apprenticing and care. Her mother and brother will hear of her death in childbirth and assume the babe went as well.”

“I would appreciate their names, to properly pay them. Thank you, old friend.” Not for the first time, Don Enrique clasped the shoulder of the only steadfast friend he had in the world. This man would cut off his own head if it mean saving Don Enrique; please Deus it never came to that point. The individual known as de Borgoñan beamed back, blue eyes crinkling, as the bundled stirred once more with a wet mewling noise.

“I help my master, Sire, nothing more. But first, the matter of the babe..."

LA BASTARDA, available on Amazon



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