Home to West Wales
We were going home.
The day we were told what was to become of us was the end of a torment and the beginning of joy. That very afternoon after the messenger had come with the news we bowed our veiled heads in the chapel under the watchful eye of the old priest, and whispered our gratitude and our goodbyes into the cold stone walls.
That night under cover of darkness we went abroad and laughed our gratitude to the Great Lady of the woods, dancing clad only in moonlight while our Emrys gurgled in his swaddlings on a grassy bank.
We were going home, back to the land of the dragon, to our own soft lilting language and its ancient customs. Our thoughts were of the long shadows cast by our great stones, of Bara Brith, of the tang of lava bread, of good welsh mutton and of the songs of our people.
Of course there were conditions upon our going but for this day we put those aside and rejoiced.
It was only on the following day when I woke to find Nest curled against my back that I knew my girl was wakeful with dread. I turned and took her into my arms and we lay for a while unspeaking.
It was she who broke the silence. “The man I am to marry”, she said quietly into the early dawn,” is Gerald de Windsor. He is the keeper of Pembroke Castle.”
“But that is Montgomery land.”
“ Montgomery’s have been absent many years. Henry seized it and put his man in charge.”
We lay warm and close for a while, the child sleeping easily in his swaddlings beside us in our great bed. Pembroke was a good place and I could not help a moment of pleasure at my memory of it. Then Nest spoke again:
“My dowry lands at Carew are to be returned to me. My husband will no doubt be happy I bring something more than Henry’s bastard to the marriage.”
The tone was not pretty and I was shocked. Our little man was a treasure and a delight and I had never heard Nest speak of him so. I felt her hot tears against my shoulder and I pulled her closer.
“Do men think this is easy”, she asked me from beneath that cloud of untamed hair, “to be bartered like cattle on a whim???”
I could not answer. To have said that it seemed to me that men did not think of women much at all except for their own pleasure would not have helped and the memory of my own husband and his tenderness towards me sprang into my mind and silenced such words before they could be spoken. The question hung unexamined between us.
Nest, always the positive one shook off her mood and continued to laugh through our preparations, but in odd moments I caught her thoughtful and even fearful. If she caught me searching her dear face, she shrugged and turned away to whatever task she was about but it made my heart sore.
I had made friends at court and now I sought them out, eager for any news about this man who would be my darling’s husband and my new master. One must be wary of gossip of course, but I sought some snippet of goodness, some act of kindness, a tale of gallantry that I could hold out to her like a jewel of hope.
It was small pickings I gathered. The man was not well known. I heard from one that he was quiet and studious, which struck me as unlikely as he had attracted the bluff Henry’s attention. I heard from another that he was a drunkard and a sodomite but was generous to those he favoured. Yet another told me that he had been married three times, each wife dying in childbirth.
Despondent, I determined to make something up myself when I was accosted in our little garden by another of Henry’s favourites, a lady herself now betrothed to some minor French nobleman.
While her children, two lively boys fought each other like angry cats we sat in the sun.
“I have heard that you seek information regarding de Windsor “she said as I poured her a herbal tea that she always enjoyed and which helped soothe the pains she often complained of in her belly.
I nodded, while she sipped and sighed, “I am fortunate that I have known my husband to be from childhood.” Then she turned and faced me, “I am not so fortunate that he is twice my age, has a big nose and is prone to flatulence.” At this she laughed.
I shooed the rowdy boys from my salad bed and she ordered them to go and find some occupation that was less troublesome than tearing lumps from each other.
“It is hard to be bought and sold like this, yes?”
“I like your lady. She has a good heart and I would like to think that she has can know joy. I can tell you of this man, but what I know is a very little…..”
I turned to face her eagerly.
“I have heard Henry speak of him. He spoke of him as a comrade in arms, not as a lover of course, but what he said commended the man as honourable, trustworthy and …” she hesitated, “well my impression is that he will be kind.”
“How so? “ I asked eagerly.
“He has a son and he dotes upon the boy, as he did upon the mother.”
We sat for a moment, both; I am sure, thinking the same thoughts. To bring another man’s child to a new marriage can be a trial and there is no end of tales of young men suffering at the hand of their new father. I knew that Nest feared for our little Emrys more than she feared for herself.
“There is just one more thing, if I may advise …?”
She was rising to leave, the empty cup held out to me. I nodded for her to go on.
“The name you call the child…forgive me…a heathen name and not the name of his father?”
“We call him Emrys. It is a name from our home land.”
“I understand, but if a child has the name of the king, there may be honour in protecting him.” Her eyes searched my face. “It is better to be politic in such matters, do you not agree?”
I bit my lip but I nodded. De Windsor, who doted upon his own son, might be kind to another man’s son, and he might not. However he must surely be more kindly disposed if he were constantly reminded of his guardianship of royal blood.
The lady left with my good wishes and a parcel of the herbs she enjoyed. She would be gone to a new life in a few days and so would we.
Later when Emrys was asleep in his cradle by the fire I told Nest about our visitor. She nodded,
“She is a wise woman. I think the King will miss her wit and humour. “
“But our Emrys?”
She nudged the cradle with her skippered foot to set it gently rocking. “Our Henry, Olwen,” she sighed, aware that another battle had come to an end with a small act of diplomacy “Our dear Henry.” And then with a smile she added, “His name doesn’t matter, for we shall be at home and the language he will speak will be our own. “
We sat together then in silence knowing that very soon we would be among our own people, whatever else might befall us.
We set sail for home on a fine day. I could not help but make comparison with the outward journey we had made so long ago, when Nest was a little girl and the whole world seemed full of danger. Now we were returning, two women and a child, busy to be free of swaddling and testing his sturdy limbs and even sturdier lungs.
Nest had so wanted her son’s first steps to be upon Welsh land that she had held him back from walking, but he was keen to be on his feet. Laughing at his chubby face and eager reaching hands, I knew that he would be just like her and, once he had found his feet, would be running everywhere at full pelt.
As we approached land, the mood of optimism seemed to leave her. I caught her on deck looking into the horizon as though she was trying to see a future that was positive but could make out only shadows.
I wrapped us , all three, in my cloak and she laid her head upon my shoulder as she had always done, but she shivered more from fear I think than from the cold.
By the time we finally arrived at Pembroke, we were exhausted and our little Henry was wriggly and fretful. It was late afternoon when the herald announced our arrival and we trooped through the wooden gates looking dishevelled and travel stained. I had tried to tame my ladies hair but she would not let me, saying her new husband would have to take her as he found her.
Well, he did not find her immediately. We were informed that he was away visiting another castle and we were shown to our rooms. In those days, Pembroke Castle was a simple fortification, unembellished and without some of the luxuries we had become accustomed to.
We were fed from the kitchen: good welsh Cawl and hot buttered bread, simple and fine. Revived a little, we explored our new home, followed eagerly by a young maid called Blodwyn who was determined; it seemed to me, to take my place. Nest laughed when I sent her away, her lip quivering with complaints that she had been instructed to serve the lady.
“No one can take your place, Olwen,” she scolded, but we had both seen the antechamber where a small cot had been placed for me to sleep.
Later, all three of us snuggled together in the great bed, a fire roaring in the grate we marvelled sleepily about being home again.
Little Henry woke us late, his eager little body keen to be off exploring. I took him to the kitchen to search for something with which to break our fast and met with a hush as soon as I entered. A sour faced Blodwyn turned away at the sight of me and from the way the cook met my stare I knew they had been talking about us.
Undeterred I made a request for bacon and bread and asked if the eggs were fresh laid. My native tongue felt strange in my mouth but it confounded them utterly.
“You speak like a native.” A voice said in the English from a chair by the fire. I could not make out his face in the shadows
“That’s because I am. Born and bred.”
“A little to the north, Carew way, but over by the coast.”
Henry squirmed in my arms, eager to get his fat little hands on the hound that lolled listlessly in the straw.
“Is the dog friendly?” I asked then and when the man nodded I let Henry at him with a gleeful shriek.
“That’s a fine lad.” The man said. The women stood back, their watchful silence disapproving.
“He is indeed “; I said haughtily, “He is the king’s son. His mother is the Lady Nest”
Henry had pulled himself to his feet and was teetering against the hound, his hands buried deep in its long shaggy coat.
The man reached down and gently lifted Henry’s little face to better see him. Henry laughed and the man laughed too and then in the Welsh he said. “Well, he has more than a little of his mother in him, thank God.”
The women sniggered.
“Well, let’s be fair, Henry will no doubt make a good King, but he won’t be remembered for his looks.”
He paused and turned and as he did I saw his face in the light for the first time. It was a good face, a kind face and while it could not be said to be a face of beauty, his eyes were the colour of a spring meadow and my poor heart leapt in my breast.
Turning their startling brilliance upon me, he smiled, and I was lost. Sweet Jesus forgive me, but I loved him from that moment, though he would be my lady’s dear husband and the father of her children. Though he would be my lord and my master, I loved him then as any woman loves a man. If truth be told, old and close to death as I am, I love him still.
I blushed, I know, scarlet to the roots of my hair and the maid saw and laughed unkindly, but I think they only thought I had just realised that I had been boasting to my master, and not that I was as smitten as a young maid by the man with whom my lady’s destiny was so bound.
“My Lord”, I stammered, “I did not know……”
He waved his hand, but continued to gaze at me. I barely knew myself as I fumbled to answer his questions. How had our journey been? Was my Lady rested? Did she need anything? By now Henry was bouncing happily on De Windsor’s knee and he bade me leave him and take food to my lady.
I flew across the courtyard to our rooms to find Nest still in bed. At my startled appearance she took fright. It took a moment to calm myself so I could explain that her husband was in the kitchen petting her son and asking after her welfare.
I dressed her as quickly as I could and did my best to tame the wildness of her hair. There was no need to pinch her cheeks to bring colour to them as they flamed already. While we worked she asked me question after question, barely waiting for the answers.
What was he like? He seemed good humoured and kind?
What did he look like?
He has green eyes I answered because I did not know what else to say. She flashed me a quizzical look but I caught a knot at that moment with my comb and she was distracted enough not to notice my flush.
Is he tall?
I had only seen him sitting but he seemed to be well shaped.
What was his manner toward Henry?
As a kindly father to a loved son.
At this she paused and drew my face to hers.
Eventually we were ready and I watched anxiously as Nest slipped her shoes upon her feet and paused to draw breath. Together, arm in arm; we made our way back across the courtyard to the kitchen from whence a great noise of shouting and barking and the shrill laughter of children rang out.
As we entered the scene that met us gladdened our hearts. Our master was upon all fours and upon his back rode a boy of about five who held before him, a joyfully shrieking Henry. About them raising dust and straw dance the long legged hound.
At our appearance the master turns his head. I see his beautiful green eyes scan Nest’s whole person before fixing upon her face with a look that I can only describe as approval. From where he crawls in the dirt at our feet he lets out a bellow that seemed to shake the roof and catching a boy in each arm raises himself up and bows.
I often think of us then, frozen in time, our hearts hoping for a future of bright possibilities. Nest is pink cheeked and breathless, her eyes shining with health, her hand upon my arm. Our Lord is in that instant, a giant, glorious and in his prime, his feet planted firmly upon the floor of his kitchen. The boys captured wriggling and laughing in his arms are like the cherubs I have seen carved into the pillars of the great church on the border of our lands.
At any moment, it seems to me in my memory; those boys might fly from those strong arms and into their manhood without a backward glance. My Lord will take my girls hand and lead her into her new life… and myself? I will fade into the shadow and become the old woman you see before you now.
But enough of that. There is more life to come before we falter and fade into dust. More. So much more. In the seed of that moment the future of many generations to come gather waiting and I alone have the telling of their tale.