After that night Nest was dutiful and obedient in her manner but her heart had hardened.
We are all connected; all of us living things, stretched out across the earth. Our roots go deep and we know one another, often in such a subtle way that we can choose to ignore it. I have seen many men and women do so in my long life, much to their later sorrow.
The field mouse senses the hawk long before the claws crush her. The fish has knowledge of the hook or the net I am certain.
Some would say the calf acquiesces to the knife so we may be fed; the pig likewise. I cannot say if this is so, but I have watched the red deer in the forest of Dyfed turn and face the hunters arrow as though she knew her time for running free was over.
Henry was a bluff soldier, but he could not fail to sense the difference in my girl. He might have found words to calm her anger but his mouth was empty of fine phrases. If he was saddened by the withdrawing of her affections, he never spoke of it. He simply called upon her less and his attention went to more willing maids.
Though, I must say this, he did not behave unkindly. He might have punished her, as I have seen other men do their paramours. He did not. There were times when I saw his gaze fall upon her; sometimes, when she entered a room, or sat at table, and a look of wistfulness would flit across his face. It would be just a moment, almost of forgetfulness, as though a memory had surprised him, but he would fall into distraction quickly. That is the way of men who will not allow their hearts to bleed.
So, more time passed.
“I will not bear another child to that man,” Nest announced, early in that time, while we sat about the fire, the child at her breast. Henry had sent yet another wet nurse that day and Nest had sent the girl away.
She looked long at me, eyes hard and dark. The great Goddess who holds us in her hand and who shows us the ways of the earth seemed to sigh. In the flickering of the firelight, I nodded.
The new God, the limp, almost lifeless figure hanging tortured from a cross; this wandering teacher from a far land defeated by his enemies and given up by his loving father, he would not approve. That is what the priests who spoke for him would tell us. They, who made promises of chastity but rutted in secret with unwilling maidservants, or with boys sent into their safe keeping. They, whose eyes grew round and bright over finery and who were content to take from the mouths of the hungry to ensure their own bellies were filled.
They would tell us that a woman was the gateway to their Hell, that because of the wickedness of the first woman all were condemned. We had already suffered their preaching and condemnation for the herbs and unction’s we made from our precious garden that eased the pains of the sick, comforted the dying, or helped in childbirth. We knew that to ensure no more children were born was a grievous sin, but Nest was determined. There would be no more children for her with Henry. With the help of our Goddess and the knowledge she had bestowed upon us, we would ensure it was so.
And so, life went on for us. Henry spent less time at the castle in the months that followed. There had been tensions before, between him and the King, but that spring saw a rift that was to seal all our fates.
On the rare occasion that she and Henry now met she would return with gossip and fear.
“Something is brewing,” she told me one morning as we sat in the bright sunshine that had followed a week of wind and icy rain.
Henry had sent word that he would be coming. The King was in England, no doubt surrounded by his young men. She had gone to Henry as ordered but when she had reached his door, it was clear that others were with him. When she entered the room, the men ceased their conversation and were soon dismissed.
“After he was done with me,” Nest said in a whisper, “He was tender.”
I questioned her. What did she mean by that.
She shook her head, the sunlight harsh upon her young face, Emrys gurgled in her lap.
“He stayed with me, like he had in the early days. He thanked me for his son and said I was not to fear. He said he understood that there was a great bond between us and that he would not break that. He asked if I missed my homeland. Did I want, if the opportunity presented itself, to go home to Wales?”
“What did you answer?” I asked, barely able to breathe. What did this mean? Could it be that we were going home at last?
Nest smiled and looked deeply into my eyes. “I said yes, of course. I said, if it pleased him, I would take my son and my maid and go home tomorrow.”
I imagined the jut of her chin, the defiant challenge. Yes she would do as she was bid, but she would not leave us behind.
“What did he say?”
“He ran his hand through my hair and gazed at me as though for the last time and then he promised me that he would do his best to make sure we were all safe.”
She shook her head thoughtfully before turning back to me, “ Olwen, something is being planned and I know not what, but Henry is about something that is dangerous.”
We sat for a while, the child wriggling and demanding our attention, while the sun sneaking behind a cloud drove us back into our rooms and about our daily business. We would have to wait, but we women know waiting and we set to it with all our courage.
This time, our waiting was not long. Within the month, word came from England. The king had been killed. Later we were to learn that he was shot with an arrow meant for the stag that waited at bay for his release.
Hunting is a dangerous pastime. It is not always the prey who come to grief, so accidents are wont to happen, but later we were to hear rumours. It would seem that in the confusion, the body of the King was abandoned where he fell, that the courtier who had fired the fateful arrow had fled the forest immediately and went to ground, as though he himself now feared for his life.
All of this was shocking but of greatest importance to us was the news that Henry had seized the crown for himself. Henry was now King of England, apparently unchallenged and intent upon a marriage that would strengthen his hold on his dead brother’s land. His bride to be was of Scotland, more powerful and important then than Wales. He was to marry Matilda and as we took in the news, one question burned in hearts.
What would become of us?