Just when I thought it impossible, I find myself with child once again. Queasy beside my tower windowsill, I inhale the strong balsam breeze wafting over the castle. My knuckles turn white as I clench the stonework, trying to steady my nerves. Breathe Branwen, breathe. Just a few more moments and the nausea will pass. My stomach churns as I squeeze my eyes shut.
Footsteps echo up the tower stairwell. My serving girl gasps, rushing across my chamber to my side. She pats my shoulder as I swallow the bile rising in the back of my throat.
“My Queen, are you all right?”
“Fine, Rowena. Fine.”
She knits her brows in worry, sensing my lie. The castle walls and the courtyard below spin in my vision. Rowena steadies me with her arm. I wave her away, breathing deep through my nostrils as the world comes back into focus. Sweat beads along my brow.
“Tell the King I’ll be along shortly. I just need a few moments’ rest.”
Rowena hesitates, biting her lip.
“But … m’lady, everyone’s waiting. The tournament cannot begin without you.”
I hang my head. The tournament. It was my idea, after all, a chance to offer an olive branch toward our rival Welsh kingdoms. To gather former foes together in friendly competition. As hostess of the tourney, I ought to be at my husband’s side to inaugurate the ceremonies. Why did these pangs in my stomach have to begin now?
Far below my window, the pavilions of canvas tents and fluttering banners dot the greens around the citadel. The din of a thousand bustling peasants selling their wares and drinking tankards of hard cider pervades the warm summer air. Woodsmoke and the aroma of roast pig permeate the castle grounds. The clang of practice swords resonates from the armory.
Rowena looks me up and down with a knowing smile. She has served as my lady-in-waiting since my teens. Now in our twenties, the two of us seem more like sisters than queen and servant. I cannot fool her.
“M’lady, I know a breeding woman when I sees one. You are with child. Another heir to the kingdom.”
I shush her with a raised finger. Another heir indeed. Is that all anybody thinks a queen is good for? Breeding more little princelings and princesses? I take a deep breath. That’s not fair. Rowena means well and has birthed two children of her own. Even though we are alone, I keep my voice low. Castle walls have ears and bleed secrets like water through a sieve.
“Not a word of this to anyone, Rowena. Not even the King. You know what happened before.”
“You’ve had miscarriages, aye. But you’ve one healthy son already. Be thankful the Lord has quickened your womb again.”
“Thankful? Do you remember what the clerics told me after my last mischance? They said bearing another child would probably kill me.”
Rowena looks to her feet, not meeting my gaze.
“The clerics are not always right, my Queen.”
I frown, wishing I could believe her innate optimism, but my last five years as queen have taught me that wishes do not lead to salvation. Only by taking matters into our own hands can anything be accomplished. And sometimes not even determination avails us anything in the face of overwhelming odds.
Blinking back the sting in my eyes, the heavy metallic taste in my throat subsides. My gut rumbles, but not as badly as before. I smooth the wrinkles out of my ivy gown, glancing in a bronze mirror as I pin back my raven locks in a loose chignon. A frown creases my cheeks. My face looks pallid as a dove’s, but there’s no helping that. Nonetheless, even after two husbands, one child, and several years as matron of a small kingdom, I still have an hourglass figure and the emerald eyes to match. I clear my throat as I head for the stairs.
“Come, Rowena. As you say, we cannot keep everyone waiting.”
Descending the steps, we emerge from the dark stairwell into the bright sunshine of midday. I blink back the water behind my eyes. The green mountains surrounding the castle seem close enough to touch. Despite my uneasy stomach, the sights and smells of Aranrhod castle bring a smile to my face. The old Roman walls and tall towers of the citadel dominate the lone hill at the center of the valley, nestled in a green Eden within the aerie of the Welsh mountains. Ancient oak woods encircle the rolling fields of upland wheat and oats that make this tiny vale the breadbasket of the highlands. There is no safer realm in all the Welsh Lands, and no place I would rather be.
With the castle gates thrown open, we wander the sprawling encampment outside the keep walls. Green dragon banners loom prevalently amongst the tents, the traditional banner of Aranrhod and the flag of my husband’s kingdom. A few dozen crimson and black dragon pennants also crown some of the tents, marking off the visiting guests. Red standards for South Wales and black ensigns for the North. A slight shudder runs down the spines of my feet. Those dragon banners bring back many memories, when some of these neighboring kingdoms called themselves our friends, and other times when they declared themselves our foes. Will the contestants in this year’s tourney be allies or adversaries a year from now? It’s anyone’s guess.
But we cannot afford another war. Not amongst ourselves, not with the Saxons biding their time across the eastern border, waiting and watching for the Welsh kingdoms to snatch at one another’s throats once more. Oft times I wonder who is worse, the Saxon barbarians or us.
Throngs of spectators crowd the open field west of the castle, already filling a natural amphitheater at the foot of the mountains. Half the onlookers form a semicircle around the horse grounds while the other half congregate around a large stage shaded by canvas overhangs. Dozens of armchairs line the dais, reserved for visiting nobility and their retinues. Rowena leaves me as I ascend the wooden steps.
An empty throne rests beside my husband’s chair. He reclines in his own seat, one leg thrown carelessly over the chair arm. If not for my upset stomach, I might very nearly laugh. Despite his near thirty years of age, Artagan remains as much a boy at heart as ever. Half the kingdom looks on while he gnaws on a leg of mutton with the same unabashed abandon he had when I first met him. He has come a long way from a bastard-born hedge knight to rise as monarch of a free Welsh kingdom, but beneath that thin veneer of royalty, he is still the charming ruffian I fell in love with five years ago.
I recline in my seat beside him as he tosses a spent lamb bone behind his throne. I stifle a grin. Yes, a very thin veneer indeed. He leans down beside my ear with a half-smile.
“What kept you? The archers will start target practice on each other if we don’t begin soon.”
I shrug off his boyish impatience. Bowmen, swordsmen, horsemen, and other contestants stand arrayed in groups across the open field. They merely wait for me to raise my scepter and begin the games. I whisper in Artagan’s ear, enjoying the tension as all eyes glance our way.
“A little anticipation makes a tourney all the more suspenseful.”
“This was your idea, remember? What’s the point? Everyone knows who will win. The North Welsh are best with a lance, the South Welsh favor the sword, and our people always win the archery. It’s a forgone conclusion.”
“Who wins doesn’t matter. This isn’t about festivities and games. It’s about gathering together with the other Welsh rulers, trying to build friendships and alliances where there has been only mistrust.”
“The Welsh kingdoms haven’t been united since the days of Arthur, long before our grandsires were in swaddling.”
My eyes suddenly narrow on the crowd. Artagan’s talk of swaddling reminds me of our boy. I haven’t seen him since I excused myself from breakfast. As though sensing my motherly alarm, Artagan points toward a knot of guardsmen surrounding Rowena. She holds my three-year-old son in her arms.
Rowena and Gavin wave at us from across the playgrounds, his shock of red hair making him stand out in any crowd. How two dark-haired parents like us begat such an auburn little angel I will never know. Artagan clears his throat, nudging me with his elbow. Time enough the events got under way.
I stand at the center of the stage and raise my ceremonial scepter, a hazelwood wand entwined with ivy and a bouquet of wildflowers. I nod with approval at the fine job Rowena did in creating my tourney baton. Hundreds of onlookers wait with bated breath as I hold my flowery stake aloft, as though I am some incarnation of Mother Nature herself. A thin smile creeps across my cheeks. I lower my scepter with a flourish.
The crowd roars as the contestants break into small groups. The swordsmen begin the melee with their blunt blades while the archers take aim at distant haystacks. Minstrels pipe merry tunes as the audience erupts into a thousand conversations, taking wagers, making bets, and grinning through teeth full of venison.
Collapsing back into my seat, I realize I haven’t sat down a moment too soon. My pale limbs tremble as I lean my skull back against the headrest. God, help me just to make it through the day. All we need is for the hostess of the event to faint, and the tourney might be postponed or canceled. It’s bad luck for a queen to pass out, and our simple country people believe in omens if they believe in anything. I clench my jaw, willing myself to smile and look serene. Artagan gives me a sidelong glance.
“You feeling well, Branwen?”
“Very. Just tired. Gavin woke in the night, and I wanted to rock him back to sleep.”
He eyes me a moment before swallowing my fib. We don’t keep secrets between us, so he shrugs and returns his attention to the games. Lying to him leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, but I can’t explain everything to him just now. I simply cannot.
Farther down the row of armchairs and pincushions, two other groups observe the tourney. One couple rests under the black banners belonging to the North Welsh of Gwynedd, and a separate trio sits under the vermilion pennants of South Wales from Gwent. The Queen of the northern kingdom glances my way. Her black tresses and violet eyes complement her lavender gown. She watches me with a fickle smile.
Queen Olwen. Despite her having a few years on me, she still has the figure of a Welsh Venus. Her voluptuous curves and smooth voice have captivated men from one end of Wales to the other, including my husband in the years before I met him. I think Olwen bears a torch for him still.
I beam pleasantly back at her, uttering a few stifled oaths behind my forced grin. She nods back from across the pavilion, doubtless thinking the same black thoughts about me. Her quiet gray-eyed husband, King Iago, coolly watches the events, still as a lizard basking in the sun. It’s an open secret that Olwen rules him in the bedchamber and thus rules North Wales from behind the throne. But we each have plenty of dark secrets in our pasts we would much rather leave behind us. More than once Olwen and I have been rivals, then allies, then rivals once again.
The crowd cheers as one of the bowmen in green scores a bull’s-eye for the Free Cantrefs. Another knot of spectators boos when the horsemen under the black banners unseat several opponents in the joust. So far, each competition proceeds just as Artagan predicted. Our people gain laurels with the longbow while the North Welsh win on horseback. Meanwhile, the swordplay continues across the dusty green, the favored event of the South Welsh.
Far to my right, the plump King Griffith of South Wales leans forward in his seat, intensely urging on the combatants. His even plumper wife, Queen Cordelia of Cornwall, licks the honey from her fingertips as she finishes off another half rack of pork ribs. Beneath their scarlet banners, a third person sits in their midst, a boy barely in his teens. He pays no attention to either the games or the crowd. Young Arthwys, the Prince and future ruler of South Wales, glares at me across the multitude. Wild tufts of sandy hair fall across his stern eyes.
I immediately look away.
Although I bear him no ill will, I cannot blame the boy for hating me still. I was once his stepmother. Back during my first marriage, when my father betrothed me to the previous monarch of South Wales, Morgan the Hammer King. An icy shiver runs through me. Those were dark days indeed, full of dark memories. Both my father and my first husband now lie in their crypts, but those of us who survive must still live with the consequences of the decisions they made. Poor young Arthwys and I were merely pawns in their chess game of thrones, but I fear the day when Arthwys comes of age and wields the scepter of the South Welsh. He has the stony look of his dead father in his eyes.
I return my attention to the games, another bout of wrestling taking place in the center of the field. Despite the enthusiasm of the boisterous crowd, I find it difficult to concentrate. My stomach gurgles mercilessly with discontent, although whether from morning sickness or the nearness of my rivals, I cannot tell for certain. We sit on our makeshift thrones, watching the commoners bash themselves into pulp for our honor. The North Welsh on one side, the South Welsh on the other, and our Free Cantrefs stuck in the middle. Just like on the map. Perhaps it was folly of me, after all, to think anything good could come of this mindless blood sport.
Artagan sits on the edge of his seat, mimicking jabs and wincing with grief and pleasure by turns as the wrestlers have at it on the greens. I cannot hide my smile. He probably has half a mind to join them. Although he is brave and strong in battle, I sometimes fear his heart outweighs his head. Then again, I think I love Artagan as much for his flaws as for his virtues.
Amidst the fights, he speaks to me without taking his gaze off the field.
“Did you notice not everyone you invited has come to this gathering of lances and swords?”
“You mean the Kingdom of Dyfed?”
“Aye. Did they ever reply to your invitation?”
“No, not even so much as a raven to announce their refusal.”
I hang my head. Wales has long been divided into a patchwork of various fiefdoms. North Wales, South Wales, and the Free Cantrefs, but it is the realm of Dyfed in the Southwest of the Welsh Lands where I was born and still oft times think of as my homeland. Although the people here in Aranrhod remain close to me as family, I cannot help but feel a pang of guilt for not being able to rule in the territory whence I was born.
But much of that remains out of my hands. Dyfed has been a land of chaos since my father died. For years now, his many bastards have taken turns claiming the throne there and feuding with each other. How ironic that I, his only legitimate heir, should rule as queen in a neighboring fief, not in the very shire in which I took my first steps.
In my dreams, I still recall the sound and smell of the sea crashing against the hill fort of Dun Dyfed. But those are only dreams, and I shall probably never again lay eyes upon that place for the rest of my days. Dyfed is as much a ruin as my own childhood turned out to be, a past to which I may never return.
The piercing cry of my son’s voice suddenly draws my attention. Gavin moans in Rowena’s arms, straining and reaching out for two swordsmen circling one another in the open arena. Rowena’s face turns a shade of purple as she tries to restrain the boy in her grasp. Little Gavin is tall for his age, and has grown headstrong as any prince in Christendom. He whines, clearly wanting to join the swordsmen in the melee, oblivious of the danger. Just like his father. I shake my head. Heaven help me if I have to raise two brave and fearless boys, one my son and the other my husband.
I motion for Rowena to bring Gavin over to me. She deposits the wriggling toddler in my arms, his blue eyes enlivened by the spectacle of so many men-at-arms traversing the field at once. Part of me hoped Gavin might be a more bookish child like I was, but his father’s blood clearly runs stronger in him. This fiery-haired boy was born to be a warrior.
He relaxes somewhat on my lap, but I still keep both arms around him as my son points and smiles at the combatants on the grass. My heart seizes a moment, imaging him a grown man years from now, having to face the perils of a real battlefield. I squeeze him tight in my embrace. Never. I’ll make peace with the Welsh, the Saxons, or anyone else I have to if it ensures that no more wars trouble this country. I will find a way. I must. My baby should not have to refight the same battles his mother and father did.
King Griffith bellows across the stage as one of the swordsmen with a red armband falls back under the onslaught of two other contestants. Griffith rises from his chair, vociferating with spittle in his chestnut beard. His pink jowls shake with rage.
“Have at him, man! Mind your footwork! Watch him, watch him! That’s it!”
The swordsman from South Wales begins urging his two opponents back again, swinging wildly under the commands of his king. Artagan and I exchange glances over our son’s head. King Griffith is an honorable ruler, but the last few years of feasts and drink that go along with kingship have left him a soft, heavy drunkard. He pants through crimson cheeks, looking like he might topple over simply from his own strong speech and shaking fists. The battle royal in the sword pen continues amidst clanging blades and dented shields.
“Maybe I was wrong.” Artagan winks at me. “We won the archery and the North won the joust, but the South Welsh look like they’re in trouble in the sword competition.”
My husband smirks at Griffith’s growing agitation. Artagan palms his own sheathed longsword beside his throne. Unlike most of our woodland folk, who fight with longbows, Artagan has always been a master with the longsword. It earned him the nickname Artagan Blacksword in his youth, and rival kingdoms still refer to him as such. He still has enough spunk in his sword hand to probably best every challenger in the melee, but I’d prefer he not put it to the test. A king’s place is at the head of a banquet or issuing edicts from a throne, not waving a blade in the face of every man he meets. Even though my beloved no longer lives day to day by his sword as he once did as a hedge knight, no amount of kingship will ever break him of his old habits.
This tourney has not turned out as I hoped. Instead of providing a friendly atmosphere of fun and trust, the rival groups only seem to antagonize each other all the more. Can this day get any worse?
My stomach gurgles again, making me wince. I need to excuse myself before I collapse and make a fool of myself. Why couldn’t these pangs wait just a few more hours? Then I could retire discreetly to my bedchamber and while the day away in bed with my books. Reading legends about the fairy folk or old magic would do more to settle my nerves than any amount of herbals and fresh air.
King Griffith continues growling between clenched teeth as his champion falters under the blows of swordsmen with black and green armbands. It looks as though the South Welsh will not win their favored event after all. I might roll my eyes if all these noblemen didn’t take sparring so seriously. Men and their pride. No better than overgrown boys with pointy sticks in their hands.
Griffith unsheathes his own sword and steps into the ring, grabbing a cleft shield from the mud. Heaving as though he might fall over, the monarch stands between his vanquished champion and the remaining two swordsmen. Both antagonists exchange looks, unsure what to do. Striking a king usually merits death by beheading. My pulse jumps in my throat. Damn Griffith for being such a haughty fool!
Artagan leaps forward from his seat, his blade still sheathed but at his side. The two kings eye one another as the remaining combatants back off. The crowds run silent. Artagan speaks loud enough for all to hear.
“What are you doing, Griffith? Let these men finish their fight without interference.”
“Stand aside, Blacksword! If these men mean to sully the reputation of South Welsh swordsmen, I intend to teach them a lesson or two.”
Artagan glances back at me as though looking for guidance. I merely shake my head. If Griffith wants to make a fool of himself, let him. Why did Artagan have to get involved? His stupid ideas about fairness and chivalry mean nothing to the vanity of lords and kings. Artagan sighs, speaking lower.
“Griffith, you are deep into your cups. Let us retire from this field together. We once fought Saxons side by side, let us not cross swords here over a few men in a tourney.”
Griffith bristles at Artagan refusing to call him king. But when have kings ever recognized other monarchs as equals? Griffith aims his blade at Artagan.
“I’m not some old man to be trifled with, young pup! I fought Saxons while you were still at your mother’s tit. Now stand aside while I teach these other sellswords a lesson, or I’ll cut you down myself!”
Artagan tightens his jaw. Damnation. I rise, putting Gavin in Rowena’s arms again. I can smell the liquor on King Griffith’s breath from a dozen paces away. God help us, neither of them plan to back down. I’ve got to stop this, but how?
Queen Olwen and her husband exchange glances, looking on silently. They probably enjoy the spectacle of this tourney turning into a debacle. Artagan grips his sword, starting to pull it from its scabbard.
“This is my land, Southron. Lower your blade or I shall lower it for you.”
Guards on both sides take up arms, but Griffith stays them with a raised palm.
“The rest of you stand down! If the Blacksword thinks he can best me, he’ll have to bloody well do it himself.”
I stagger onto the grass, lifting my skirts over my ankles so that I don’t trip. I’ll throw myself between the two of them if I must. I sway on unsteady feet, perspiration running down my back beneath the folds of my gown. I should be in bed, but I cannot let this confrontation between kings happen. Artagan will defeat Griffith in a heartbeat, but Griffith will never quit. It will mean war, and worse, a bloodbath in my own front yard. Damn these prideful men! Their stubbornness does them courage in battle, but it makes for poor diplomacy.
As I reach Artagan’s side, a horse whinnies loudly in the distance. All eyes turn as a pair of riders gallops headlong down from the mountain passes and into the thick of the crowd. Peasants curse and jostle out of their way as the two horsemen rear up their mounts directly before Artagan and me. Both heralds gasp for air, their mounts bathed in sweat. Each man bears a spear in one hand and a calfskin shield in the other. My eyes widen. I’d recognize such rawhide shields anywhere. These riders come from Dyfed.
The lead rider bends down in the saddle, addressing the crowd of kings and queens.
“We bear ill tidings from Dun Dyfed by the sea. Our fortress has fallen to the barbarians and we ask for aid.”
Hushed murmurs break out amongst the crowd. Griffith and Artagan’s showdown has been momentarily forgotten. News of barbarians on the move makes my skin run cold. I grasp one of the horses by the bridle, looking up into the faces of these worn warriors. Blood and dirt smudge their cheeks. They clearly have had a rough fight just getting here.
“Barbarians on our shores?” I ask. “When? How? Why would the Saxons break the truce now of all times?”
The lead rider shakes his head.
“I said barbarians, fair Queen. Not Saxons. Those who attacked us came on ships with black sails and animal-skin hulls.”
My eyes narrow. What on earth does he babble on about? Saxons rarely use ships, and when they do, they’re made of wood. The second rider explains.
“Their warriors had white lime in their hair and blue woad on their skin. The ancient enemy of our ancestors has returned from the northern wastes. Dyfed has fallen and all our kingdoms are now in peril! We were attacked by the Picts!”
I stagger backward, steadying myself on Artagan with one arm. Impossible. The Picts on our shores? Painted in white and blue like in the legends of old? They’re a fairy tale, a bedtime story meant to frighten young children. They cannot be here now.
My gut betrays me as hot fluid rises in my throat. The tumult inside me will no longer be contained. I retch onto the grass, coughing up my breakfast of oats near Artagan’s feet.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Noce