Between Two Fires
By Mark Noce
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2016 Mark Noce
All rights reserved.
Today I will marry a man I have never met. My stepmother orders the servants to brush the dust off my white gown. Father, our King, is already well into his cups as he and his warriors sing bawdy songs from the mead hall. Beneath my chamber window, the sea crashes into the hill fort walls. My head aches as the rolling surf bangs against the slick rocks far below, wearing away the fortress crags with the endless patience of the tide. I've half a mind to throw myself over the ledge.
But I don't. I am Branwen, daughter of King Vortigen, ruler of the Kingdom of Dyfed. I have a duty to the honor of my ancestors, and I will not be the first of my line to blemish it. Nonetheless, at times like these, surrounded by my stepmother's dawdling servant girls and their barking lapdogs, I wish I wasn't an only child. That's not entirely true. Father has countless bastards, many of whom are no doubt carousing with him down in the dining hall this very instant. But I have no siblings born on the right side of the blanket, no one to confide in. No one to take my place in this betrothal to a distant king.
The floorboards of my solar shudder beneath my feet. My stepmother grimaces, annoyed by the boisterous celebration of Father and his warriors drinking, brawling, and merrymaking with the peasants and scullery maids in the adjacent hall. I can hardly blame them. The people of our tiny seaside kingdom are euphoric. Not because they long to see me wed, but because my marriage means a lasting peace and an end to the war. My soon-to-be husband has an army of six thousand men outside our gates who have laid siege to our kingdom for the past two moons.
All I know of him are the six thousand spears that dot the green hills from the landward side of my window. That and the stories about him. I know less than a common dairymaid thanks to my stepmother, the Queen. She forbids any of the servants from telling me much of the outside world. But I have overheard a few rumors, from women in the kitchens and the horsemen who run Father's stables. They call him the Hammer King. He wears an iron mask into battle and wields a war-hammer said to have slain a hundred foes. My nightmares of late consist of a shadowy, faceless blacksmith. Each evening he swings a massive hammer down upon the anvil of my heart. I often awake in sweats that soak my bedcovers.
I tap my foot, glaring at my stepmother.
"Please, leave me be. I need to make water."
The Queen frowns.
"Do not muss your dress. A lady doesn't raise her voice or stomp her foot."
I roll my eyes. She ushers her bondswomen and their small dogs out of my bedchamber. Sometimes I envy those little hounds. At least my stepmother pets them and says nice things to them. She continually mistakes me not for her stepdaughter, but for some porcelain doll she can dress up and paint as she pleases. After the door closes, I wait until the last of her footfalls diminishes down the stairwell.
I collapse on a footstool and put my head on my knees. I can't weep. My stepmother will see the tearstains and Father will backhand me for having bloodshot eyes on the day of my wedlock. It seems just yesterday I played along the windswept beachheads, making tracks in the damp sand. The heft of my crepe wedding gown weighs me down as I look out my bedroom window for the last time. I'll be wed to the Hammer King by sundown.
Composing myself, I descend to the main dining hall. I hide my palms within the folds of my gown so that no one will see my hands shake. Father and his warriors cheer when they see me, banging their mead cups against the tabletops. Liquor sloshes from the brims of their drinks. They're too drunk to notice how I look. My stepmother's servant girls snicker behind their hands. Crow Face. Raven Head. Blackbird. The same old names. My stepmother makes no move to stop them. In our kingdom, even the slaves mock me.
My pale cheeks burn. My stepmother's golden hair shines by torchlight, just like a noble lady's ought. Even the bondservants have tawny or brassy locks. My midnight tresses and forest-green eyes reflect in the polished shields hanging on the wall. Black hair. Peasant hair. Amongst our kingdom, only the commoners and barbarians have jet-black sheaves like mine. It doesn't help that I'm thin as a stick and the bumps on my chest are small as flat cakes. No wonder my stepmother and Father are so delighted. The miracle of all miracles has happened. The day they marry off their ugly daughter.
And to a mighty king no less. I labor under no illusions. I am part of a bargain, a peace settlement that will bring stability to the warring kingdoms. The man who plans to marry me tonight has never seen me before, nor did he ask to. I only hope the war doesn't start anew when he sees what an ebony-haired scarecrow he has for a bride. I've reached my sixteenth summer and already my life seems to be over.
Father motions for me to take a seat on a mead bench across from him, a checkered board laid out on the table between us. His thanes give us a wide berth. Father clearly wants a moment alone with me. He may look all mirth and smiles, but he flashes a wolfish smirk from behind his frothing drink.
He makes the first move with an onyx pawn, his strategy always aggressive when we play chess. Celtic Chess, known as fidchell in Ireland and gwyddbwyll in parts of Wales; playing the game connects us to our roots, an ancient stratagem originating with the Old Tribes whose blood runs in us still. It's the only pastime Father and I ever shared together, the only moments when I saw something other than a stern monarch always frowning at me. Sometimes before the chessboard, he even let down his guard and talked of Mother. Not today though.
I defend with my druids, pieces called "bishops" by the clerics who play the game today. I prefer to remember things as the Old Tribes called them, as my mother would have known them. The King grimaces as he strikes one of my pearl pieces down with his horseman.
"You always hold back. Don't just defend, learn to strike."
"Maybe I'm laying a trap." I smirk.
He glances from side to side, doubtlessly ensuring no one lingers within earshot as he leans across the board and lowers his voice so that only I can hear.
"I don't need to tell you how much hinges on this alliance with the Hammer King. I've no son born on the right side of the blanket, and my wife's womb lies empty. You're all I have left, so we must make do."
There it is. A not-so-subtle dig that had I been born a boy, things might have been much better for everyone. But now, he must make do with a raven-haired urchin like me. I swallow, trying to focus on the board while I listen.
"You've no wiles to put on him, no way to seduce the Hammer King, even if he was that sort of man," Father explains. "But you will be privy to private councils and words that pass in the halls of his castle. Things that may never reach my ears. It will be up to you to look out for Dyfed's interests."
"You want me to spy on my new husband?"
"I want you to keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut."
I sigh, taking a deep breath. This may be the last time I see Father for a long, long while. I might as well be honest.
"Is it all worth it, Father? Wedding me to this stranger to save our people?"
Father grimaces at me like I'm some idiot child.
"Better to be at the right hand of the devil than in his way."
Within a dozen moves, he eliminates half my pieces on the game board despite losing his horsemen and his queen. Father was always good at sacrificing a queen when it spoke to his advantage. His sea-gray eyes gaze into mine, the look of a man more king than father. He takes my king piece to win the game, his voice flat and even.
"One game ends, another begins."
A knot tightens in my stomach, knowing that he refers to more than just the chessboard.
War trumpets blare outside. My heart stops up my throat. The clanking din of iron greaves and heavy chain mail echo from the hall entranceway. The Hammer King has arrived.
Father's men push back their mead benches, grabbing their spears and shields. Even though peace has been declared, they plan to look their fiercest before the Hammer King's men. Several guardsmen surround my stepmother and her ladies, but only one soldier thinks to stand by my side.
Ahern shoulders his spear and shield beside me. His stout frame and ochre beard bear a strong resemblance to my father. Even though he is one of Father's many bastards, he almost seems a full brother to me at this moment. I would reach out and take his hand, but right now I can hardly keep my knees from wobbling.
The Hammer King's thanes fan out into the torch-lit mead hall, the ever-present roar of the nearby surf thundering through the bones of the castle. Despite the crashing waves, my heart drums louder within my ears. The Hammer King's men wear iron helms and vests of mail, their thick teardrop-shaped shields bigger than our people's light calfskin bucklers. Although I know it would be treason to say it, the Hammer King's warriors look big enough to swallow ten of Father's men for supper. So I say nothing. My stepmother often reminds me that a lady keeps silent poise. Father always chides me that no one wants to hear what a little girl would say, especially when kings and lords are present. A herald blows on a curved horn once more, before raising his voice for all to hear.
"All hail, King Morgan, Lord of South Wales, Master of castles Caerleon and Caerwent!"
I murmur the name of my future husband. Morgan. I half-forgot the Hammer King had a real name, just like any other Christian soul. He is just a man, after all. My heart lightens until a lone figure appears in the hall entranceway. He wears a crown made of forked stag antlers, beneath it a metal helmet with a steel mask. Despite the tiny mouthpiece and eyeholes, the mask resembles the grim visage of an iron goblin. I cannot move, frozen by the hollow stare of the Hammer King as he stands on our darkened doorstep. Even Father's mouth hangs open, speechless. Only the sound of the sea and guttering torches fill the vast stone hall.
Morgan's footsteps clack heavy as horseshoes across the cobblestone floors. He carries a huge iron war-hammer, slung behind his back. I doubt any men in the room would have the strength to lift it. He pauses first before Father and my stepmother before turning toward me. The Hammer King removes his riding gloves as he looks me over. Even through the eye slits of his mask, I feel his gaze appraising me as a knight might observe a horse. My cheeks burn hot as I dig my fingernails into the flesh of my palms. What did I expect after all? He is a warlord called the Hammer King, not some charming troubadour with a harp. He has not come to woo me, but to bed me. The King removes his helmet-mask and smiles.
I swallow. He wears his brown beard short and well trimmed, his gray eyes sparkling with a hint of starlight. Morgan flashes another friendly grin. He even has all of his teeth! Other than an old scar along his left eye, he has an unblemished face. My stepmother's ladies-in-waiting would surely blush if he ever glanced their way.
Bowing slowly, I regain my composure. He is a king, after all, and is only being courteous. It must make him retch, to have an ugly youngling like me for a bride. Morgan has at least ten years on me, maybe more. He could have any queen he might desire, but he has chosen a crow-faced girl barely halfway through her teens. I can guess his thoughts. Morgan sees my father's lands when he looks at me. He sees all the green pastures, windswept rocks, and stout spearmen of Dyfed in my eyes. I represent an extension of his ever-growing kingdom, nothing more.
Father clears his throat. Were the situation not so tense, I might stifle a giggle at seeing my father so lost for words. He and the Hammer King bow to one another, their warriors leering at each other across the room. Father never takes his eyes off King Morgan.
"I present my daughter, Lady Branwen of Dyfed. May she bear you many sons!"
I flush from ear to ear. The Hammer King frowns with approval and nods. He takes my hand, his fingers so much larger and rougher than mine. I feel small as a mouse in his grasp. Father raises his hands, signaling to the minstrels that they may resume playing their lutes and pipes. The din of clanking drinking horns and mirth making fills the hall. Serving wenches smile as they bring mead to soldiers from both armies. Father leans in close to Morgan's ear.
"Let us retire to my private chambers, Lord Morgan."
The Hammer King bristles at Father calling him "lord" instead of "king," but he nonetheless nods in reply. He seems a silent sort of man. What must my boisterous father make of his new son-in-law? The Hammer King releases my hand, but I remain beside him, uncertain what to do next. My stepmother intrudes with a curtsy, batting her eyelashes at King Morgan.
"My liege, I summoned a banquet from our larders for your wedding feast. Forgive our unprepared tables, but we had little warning of the newly announced betrothal."
"No need, Queen Gwendolyn. I march at dawn back to Caerwent. My bride and I will be wed there."
"Oh, I–I see," my stepmother stammers.
She curtsies again, her eyes glazing over with distracted thoughts. Morgan's words clearly disappoint her, but I can't help from flashing a dark smile. At least I won't have to deal with any more of my stepmother's pomp and fuss, struggling to make me a lady after years of neglect. At the same time, the finality of my wedlock weighs down my steps. Come tomorrow, I'll leave my childhood home beside the sea forever, belonging to a strange man in a strange castle far to the east.
Father detects none of his queen's disappointment, nor my own foreboding, as he ushers Morgan toward his chambers. I trail after them, still not knowing what to do with myself. Father gives me a sharp glance. He clearly doesn't want anyone disturbing his meeting with Morgan, but I loathe the thought of remaining behind with my stepmother and the other chattering serving girls in the main gallery. I've never been one for festivities. Reading one of Abbot Padraig's books beside the fire, alone in my solar, has always appealed to me more than the drinking songs of the mead hall. As I stand alone, save for my guardsman, Ahern, King Morgan turns back and takes me by the hand.
"I would have my Queen-to-be remain at my side. I brought an army all the way to Dyfed for her hand, and I don't intend to let her out of my sight."
He smiles again, and I find myself stupidly grinning back. Hopefully, he doesn't notice my crooked eyeteeth or the pockmark of acne on my left cheek. Did he really assemble an army just to make a woman out of a stick-thin girl like me? Father raises a stern eyebrow before he shrugs. He mumbles under his breath.
"Womenfolk are too dim to betray secrets they do not understand anyway."
The three of us snake up the spiral staircase to Father's solar overlooking the cliffs. Ahern remains at the foot of the stairwell, guarding the entrance. Father shuts and locks the door.
A chill runs down my spine as a fell wind blows in through the window. Icy stars glimmer over a rising blue moon. Father rarely allows anyone inside his private quarters. Although a Welshman to the bone, Father is proud of the blood of Romans and Irishmen in his veins, distant though those ancient links may be.
An imperial eagle standard from a long-lost legion of defeated Rome hangs in one corner. Celtic tapestries with knot-work deck the stone interiors. Father lights a candelabra beside his desk before unfolding several parchments and charts. He stoops down beside the chamber hearth, rekindling a fire in the glowing embers. Morgan pores over the largest map on the desktop, a drawing of Wales sketched out by long-dead monks with insect ink on calfskins. I've seen the Abbot's clerics do as much when they recopy the tomes of the ancients in their chapel by the sea. I retreat to the corner of the chamber, more comfortable in the shadows where I can see without being directly seen.
The fire in the grate blazes to life, lengthening the shadows that line Father's face. Without warning, he brings his fist down hard on the center of the map on the table. I jump back at his snarling face, but Morgan doesn't move, almost as though he expected this outburst. The two kings stare one another down as the blaze in the fireplace snaps and crackles across the peat logs. Father breaks the silence first.
"Do you think to steal my throne from under me? My lineage is twice as ancient as yours!"
"Might will unite Wales under a single king someday, not pedigrees," Morgan replies calmly. "And I've more than enough spears to drive your tiny kingdom into the sea, Lord Vortigen."
Father sneers at Morgan in turn calling him a mere lord in his own castle. Backing against the wall, I suddenly wish I hadn't poked my nose into Father's affairs. If only the Virgin would provide me a tactful way to flee the room. Foolishly, I placed myself in the corner opposite the door. With Father's blood up, I've no intention of crossing his path while he and Morgan stare one another down. Father bangs his fist against the tabletop again, raising his voice loud enough to shake the rafters. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Between Two Fires by Mark Noce. Copyright © 2016 Mark Noce. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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