The sun relented from its long day’s punishment of the estate of Busto de Bureba. The fish in the river sought out the barely forming shadows cast by stones and branches. Inside a stone house, under a thatched roof, twenty maidservants and their lady cleaned up the dinner table, planned a cool evening meal, brought in the washing, and put away the day’s sewing without bumping into each other.
Doña Lambra looked out the open door when she heard a tinkling of bells on the road.
“Good evening, my lady!” cried the peddler, halting his donkey in the middle of the road directly in front of her house.
“What are you selling there?” Doña Lambra wiped her brow, lifted her apron, and headed toward the packs on the donkey’s back.
“I’m not really selling anything yet. I’m on my way to France, where I can get the best price for these Moorish silks and finery. But I might bring myself to part with something for the sake of one so obviously noble.”
Lambra stood a little straighter and felt the heavy wool dress scratch her shoulders through the wicked moisture. She tossed her head and her flaxen braids leapt up before they reached her waist again. “Well, I won’t buy anything before I see it.”
“Of course not, lady.”
He reached high and opened the nearest bag’s latch. The lid popped open with the force of the tightly packed fabrics inside. “This one on top is probably the best I have.” He pulled on a corner of the silk and Lambra quickly appraised its luster and smoothness.
“Green?” she said.
“Don’t turn up your nose at it, my lady. It’s the most popular color in the very caliph’s harem in Córdoba. It’s sure to become the highest fashion, especially if other ladies see you wearing it.”
“Sell it to the French ladies. I’ll have no pagan colors.”
The peddler tugged at a corner of the bolt underneath the green and a mass of azure slid into view with a swooshing sound. He came rather closer than Lambra would have liked and held it under her chin. “Just as I thought! A perfect match for your eyes! Or even the Mediterranean Sea.”
“My eyes aren’t blue,” she said, backing away.
“They certainly are! I must have a looking glass in here somewhere.” He rummaged through three different packs. The donkey flicked his tail and made the bells jingle. Doña Lambra tried to imagine the peddler all alone leading his donkey, loaded high with goods, through the rocky terrain toward France.
“Are you going through the Roncesvalles Pass unaccompanied and with bells?”
“Just my donkey and me,” he replied. “And the bells.”
“You should really pack the bells away before you get into the Basque country. You have no reason to announce your presence among those savages.”
He held a piece of polished metal between his thumb and forefinger up to Lambra’s eyes for her to see. “I’ve traveled through the Pyrenees many times. Don’t you think that blue silk favors you?”
“Now, how could I possibly tell whether the fabric favors me in such a tiny glass?” she said, taking the glass from him. “I can’t see myself and the silk at the same time!”
He considered the fabric, eyed the pack it had come from, and in a great sweeping motion, pulled his dinner knife from his belt and slashed off a square of the silk. He handed it to Lambra and folded the rest of the bolt away, saying, “You see? A perfect match. You could embroider that swatch with your golden hairs and no one would know it wasn’t straight from a treasure chest.”
She held the fabric under her eye and glimpsed two blue shapes in the glass. Maybe it was just the sky. She looked up, and the peddler had already fastened all the packs. “A gift from one so humble to one so haughty,” he said.
“Thank you,” she mumbled, handing back the looking glass.
He stuffed it into a pocket and tugged at the donkey’s bridle.
Doña Lambra turned back toward the door, where she noticed five faces of her maids disperse like a puff of smoke. She sat on the stone bench under the eaves of her house and watched the peddler jingle his slow way toward the mountains. She was glad he hadn’t pressured her to buy, because she had nothing to give in trade for silks. She had administered all her own land since her father had passed away five years earlier, so she knew that maintaining so much land and so many people often meant sacrifice and frugality before fashion. She picked up the end of her braid and set it against the fabric. Yes, her hair almost could pass for gold thread. Maybe she could have one of the girls embroider stars and moons on the fabric and set it into a bodice. Everyone at mass would think she was wearing the latest plunder from Andalusia, perhaps a gift from another admiring knight.
Her maids’ voices floated out the doorway on some farmer’s melody. Always gossiping, joking, and laughing when they thought she couldn’t hear. Well, she’d make them work hard enough tomorrow.
An eagle shrieked across the sky in search of prey. Lambra looked down the road to the west. What could that be? This road was becoming a regular thoroughfare. Two knights in chainmail headed up a twenty-man retinue, all on horseback. As they neared the house, one of the two front men lifted up the standard, a castle on a white field.
Doña Lambra tucked the blue square into her neckline, gathered up her skirts, and ran through her front door shouting. “My cousin’s here! He’s got twenty knights with him! What were we having for supper? How much wine is there?”
All the ladies dropped what they were doing and scurried to their preassigned tasks for just such an occasion: cutting more old bread for plates, clearing out the sides of the hall for sleeping space. Only Justa, who had been born into the household at nearly the same time as doña Lambra, followed alongside her lady as she charged through the great room to the kitchen at the far end.
“You told us to just make a salad: cucumbers, radishes, garlic, some nuts, maybe some quince jelly.”
“No garlic!” Lambra didn’t acknowledge Justa, whose words were merely an embodiment of her own thoughts. “No garlic!” She seized the cloves from the table where the cook was about to chop them and threw them on the floor, where a couple of puppies began to roll them around the packed earth and straw. “No garlic for the Count of Castile! Isn’t there any pepper left at all? Why didn’t he send ahead so we could get some quail or slaughter some hens? Justa! Send the boys for rabbits!” Justa ducked out the side door. “What about the pepper?”
The cook replied, “There’s about a spoonful left, my lady.”
“Stew the rabbits in the vinegar and put the pepper on at the last minute so it’s still fresh and pungent at the table. I’ll trust you to find some cheese to go with the quince, and for the love of God, make more salad!”
The cook tried not to sweat into the stew pot where she set some water to boil and chopped cucumbers as fast as she could. Lambra strode back across the house and paused just inside the front door to inhale and exhale deeply. She smoothed the hair at her temples and stepped outside.
The retinue was already arriving at the house. Lambra saw the Count of Castile in the center, also dressed in mail. His undoubtedly hot and blinding helmet was secured to the back of his horse’s saddle. Resting his hand gently on it, he dismounted in one easy motion. Lambra started toward him, exclaiming, “Cousin García! What fortunate wind brings you here?”
“Now, now, cousin,” he replied, taking her into an embrace, “you know better than to address me like that. It’s been four years now.”
“I’m sorry, your grace, most high and noble Count, leader of all Castile!” She comically bowed from the waist to restore some fragment of their playful childhood.
“You’re forgiven, my shrewd cousin!” He chuckled and laid his hand on the top of her head as if in blessing.
She stood and looped her arm through his to seal the intimacy. The other knights had dismounted, so she said, “Let us lead your noble retinue to the stables to care for their fine steeds.” She deliberately bypassed the door and in hopes that the extra time would allow her maidens to make the hall look as if it were always sparkling clean and ready for important visitors. Maybe by the time they went inside, the boys would have brought and cleaned the rabbits and the male laborers would have arrived to welcome the masculine retinue more appropriately than her maids could.
The Count unsaddled, brushed, and fed his own horse. Lambra couldn’t help but wait for him outside by the river in the cooling breezes. She let the reeds brush against her hands while she inhaled the wet river fragrance mixed with summer blossoms. The eagle cruised across the darkening sky toward its nest.
Her cousin came out to meet her by himself. “I’ve sent the men inside. I have to tell you why I’m here, Lambra, and this might be the best place for it.”
She took his outstretched hand and noticed the way he avoided her gaze. “What can it be?”
“Lambra, you’re such a beautiful woman, and so rich in lands, I can’t think of any man who truly deserves you!”
She squeezed his slippery hand. “Cousin, has something happened to your wife?” Did he want to marry doña Lambra?
He smiled and looked at her. “She’s very well. She’s in Burgos, expecting our second child.”
“That’s wonderful. Praise be to God!”
García looked away again and stared into the sun as it eased below the mountains. “You may have heard about the happy conclusion of the siege of Zamora.”
“Oh, yes! We were all so glad to hear that that beautiful city remains within Castile.”
“Well, Zamora is more of a border outpost than Burgos, or even Bustos de Bureba, but I suppose it has its charms. A good river, and it’s strategic for keeping the Kingdom of León in check… But did the news come with the reason for the end of that interminable siege?”
“There was a name, someone I’d never heard of, from far away.”
“Ruy Blásquez. Ruy Blásquez saved the city of Zamora. I would still be there today if he hadn’t come to my rescue.”
Doña Lambra thought the Earth shifted beneath her as she realized what was really happening. She was being given away. Married off, passed from hand to hand as if she had nothing better to do, as if Bureba could get by without her.
Doña Lambra had not expected to be given in marriage. With both of her parents already passed into the next world, she had been raised principally bydueñas and other servants who could wield no real authority over her. Now well into puberty, she had been taking inventory of all the surrounding noblemen, deciding which lands she might like to administer, so as to arrange her own nuptials. It even occurred to her that she needn't marry at all, but simply govern her own holdings until such time as her Father in Heaven saw fit to pass them on to his Holy Church.
But she was nothing if not shrewd, and if she had considered it, she would have realized that as the cousin of García Fernández, the Count of Castile, she would likely end up as a reward to one of his loyal warriors.
“Some vassal rescued you? I should think he was merely doing his duty.”
“Oh, Lambra, you can have no idea how far above the call of duty he went. He brought one thousand knights and united them all under Castile’s standard. And now we can fly that flag over Zamora! I know you don’t know any other way for things to be, but it was only my father Fernán González – less than a generation ago! – who declared Castilian independence from León and it’s far from a consolidated reality. By bringing so many to rally for our country, Ruy Blásquez has made himself my most valuable vassal. And so, when he asked me to find him a wife, naturally I thought of you, the richest and most noble of all my relatives.”
Doña Lambra let the orange and gold rays spewing from behind the mountain burn her eyes. “But who is this Ruy Blásquez? How old is he?”
“He’s well established.” The Count walked around and tried to face his cousin, but she turned away from him every time. “He’s completed his thirty-fifth year.”
She couldn’t help but wring her hands at the thought of a grey beard and rotting teeth. Well, but maybe he wouldn’t live that long, then she would administer all the territory they had between them.
“Is he landed?”
“He has a few parcels in the region of Lara, called Vilviestre.”
“A few parcels? I am the lady, practically the countess, of all of Bureba! Thousands of landholders owe their fealty to me and no one else!”
“Thousands? Hundreds, perhaps.”
“Lady, you forget yourself. We may be cousins, but I am the Count here. All of ‘your’ vassals ultimately work for me.”
Her eyes found his, but he had to look away. She bowed her head and whispered, “Lara’s so far. I never imagined going so far.”
He caught her as she collapsed, sobbing.
García entered the house first. As Lambra’s eyes adjusted to the firelight, she saw all of her people seated on one side of the great table, knives out, bread trenchers in front of them, with the Count’s men seated on the other side. They had wisely left the head of the table unoccupied for the Count and the lady of the house. She wiped her eyes one last time. “Pour the wine!” she said a little too loudly. “We have much to celebrate! I’m to be wedded this year!”
* * *