A Mortal Bane
Author:Roberta Gellis

‘Then I would like to hear you sing,” he said, and when they had decided on a song, he settled back to listen with clear pleasure.

 

By the time the song was done, two other women had entered the room. They stood quietly by the table, and Magdalene grinned when she saw her new guest look from one to the other with astonishment. Each was as beautiful as Sabina in her own way, but totally different. One was tiny and as dark as a Moor. Magdalene had always assumed Letice’s parents must have been Saracen captives taken in the Crusade and brought back to England as slaves instead of being ransomed. Her skin was a warm olive-brown, her almond-shaped eyes black, and her hair a raven curtain that hung to her knees, so dark and shining that it shimmered with glints of green and blue. The other was her opposite, with milk-white skin stained with crushed strawberry on the cheeks; large, round, cornflower-blue eyes; and a pursed, cherry-red mouth. Her hair was golden and fell into curls and ringlets to her waist.

 

When the song ended and the women saw the guest’s eyes on them, they both curtsied. “I am Ella,” the blonde said, coming forward with a broad smile. “I am so glad you could come.”

 

The dark woman came forward, too, but said nothing, only nodded her head in greeting and took a seat beside Magdalene, reaching down for her sewing basket.

 

“And what is your name?” the man asked the dark woman.

 

“Her name is Letice,” Magdalene said, “and she is mute, so I am afraid she cannot make light conversation. However, she is a very skilled…embroideress and dances exquisitely. She is expressive enough about what is important here.”

 

Letice looked sidelong at the guest under her long lashes, and her lips parted a trifle. “So I see,” he said.

 

Magdalene chuckled. “I will go and tell Dulcie to bring our evening meal now. Why do you not go to the table with the women and speak with them a little. That should make your choice among them easier.”

 

He shook his head. “Nothing can make a choice among three such beauties easier,” he said as he rose, but then he bent to touch Sabina’s hand. “That was a lovely song, Sabina. May I show you where the table is?”

 

“Oh, she can find it herself,” Ella said in her little girl’s voice as Magdalene started down the corridor. “We are never allowed to move anything lest Sabina bump into it. She—oh, Letice, stop! You know Magdalene promised that I could light the candles tonight.”

 

Magdalene heard Sabina replying, reminding Ella that she had nearly set her hair afire the last time, and then, as Ella began to whimper, suggesting that if she would allow Letice to tie back her hair, Letice would let her light the spill, but she must be very careful. Magdalene sighed with relief. There would be no need to explain to their guest that Ella was simple.

 

She found, when she returned from making clear to Dulcie that there would be five at the table and nodding approval of the dishes the maid suggested, that she would not need to assure her guest that Ella was not being used against her will either. Having required the guest’s help to light the candles—as evidenced by his removing his hand from hers just as Magdalene entered the room—Ella frankly rubbed herself against him to display the virtue that made her so popular as a bed partner: her wholehearted and single-minded delight in sex.

 

“Ella, my love, we do not urge ourselves on guests,” Magdalene reproved gently.

 

Ella sighed and moved away. “But he is such a pretty man,” she said. “Sabina does not care how they look. She does not need to look at them.”

 

Sabina laughed. “But I know how they look all the same, love. My fingers tell me. And there are so few who know how to help a blind woman without pulling and pushing at her. What is more, he has a lovely voice. So do not be a greedy little bird. We all want this one.”

 

“Now, now, you will make the poor man blush,” Magdalene said just as Letice came forward and touched the tip of a pointed finger to the guest’s lips, following the gentle touch with an even gentler kiss. “Sit down, all. You are getting in Dulcie’s way.”