Falls the Shadow
By Sharon Kay Penman
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1988 Sharon Kay Penman
All rights reserved.
Nefyn, North Wales
Just before midnight on the eve of Christmas, the storm swept in off the Irish Sea, struck the little hamlet that had grown up around the manor house of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, Lord of the cantref of Llýn. The village herring boats were battered and broken by the surging tide, thatched roofs were ripped away, and lightning blazed across the dark December sky, setting afire a venerable oak in the priory garth, an oak that had survived two hundred winters, Norse raids, searing summer droughts, and the invasion of the Norman-French adventurers who'd followed William the Bastard to England in God's year 1066. With the coming of light, the Welsh villagers would look upon the blackened, splintered tree and mourn its loss. Now they huddled for shelter in shuddering cottages, fretted for their livestock, and prayed for Christ's mercy.
As thunder echoed overhead, Llelo jerked upright on his pallet. Slowly his eyes adjusted to the darkness; the foreboding shadows took on familiar forms. His dream had been of his grandfather's court, where he'd lived for most of his eight years, where he'd been happy. It took him a moment to remember that this was Nefyn, his father's manor.
A section of the great hall had been screened off for their sleeping quarters, but he was alone; his brother Owain's pallet was empty. The storm was seeking entry at every shutter. Llelo was not a timid child, accepted nature's fury as unthinkingly as he did its softer favors. But the violence of this Christmas tempest was too awesome to be ignored. He pulled his blanket up to his chin, sought refuge in sleep. Too late. He was wide awake now, unable to shut out the eerie keening of the wind, the relentless pelting of the rain.
So uneasy had Llelo become that he even found himself wishing for Owain's return, and he usually looked upon Owain's company as a penance, for there lay between the brothers the formidable gap of nine discordant years. Finally he reached for his tunic, hunted in the floor rushes for his shoes. There was sure to be leftover food somewhere in the kitchen, and even if he awakened the cooks, they'd turn a blind eye, for he was Lord Gruffydd's son, grandson to their Prince, the man known to enemies and allies alike as Llewelyn Fawr — Llewelyn the Great.
But as he made ready to slip around the screen into the hall, a meagre glow caught his attention. In the center of the hearth, flames fed upon dried peat. Smoke spiraled upward; no matter how much whitewash was lathered upon the walls, they still showed the smudged proof of past fires. It was not the flickering firelight that brought Llelo to an abupt halt; it was the oil lamp that illuminated the dais, the intent faces of his mother and brother.
Llelo shrank back, for to make his presence known would be to invite two sharp scoldings. Balked but by no means deterred, he pondered strategy, and then remembered that wine and bread were always set out in his father's bedchamber for night hungers. And the stairwell lay to his left, hidden from his mother's view by the shielding screen.
The door to Gruffydd's bedchamber was ajar. It creaked as Llelo pushed it inward, and an imposing shape loomed before him, barring the way. Unfazed by the growl, he whispered, "Gwlach, down," and the wolfhound quieted. Fire still smoldered in the hearth, and by its light, Llelo was able to reach the table, keeping a wary eye upon the bed all the while. He had torn off a large chunk of bread, was turning toward the door when his father cried out.
Llelo spun about, and the bread fell to the floor, to be pounced upon by the wolfhound. His heart pounding, the boy braced himself for the reprimand. But none came. His father lay back against the pillow; his words were slurred, unintelligible. Llelo let his breath out slowly. His relief was considerable, for he dreaded his father's disapproval, never more so than when he seemed most bound and determined to provoke it.
He'd begun to sidle toward the door when his father cried out again, gave a low moan. Llelo froze, until another moan drew him reluctantly to the bed. His father was twisting from side to side, as if seeking escape. Llelo was close enough now to see the sweat streaking his face and throat; one hand was entangled in the sheets, clutching at ... at what? Llelo did not know. Unable to move, he stared, mesmerized, at the man on the bed. A troubled sleeper must not be abruptly awakened. But he knew, too, that demons came in the night to claim the unwary, to steal away men's souls, and he shivered. His father turned his head into the pillow, groaned. Llelo could bear no more. He leaned forward. "Papa?" he said softly, and touched Gruffydd's shoulder.
Gruffydd gasped, lashed out wildly. His outstretched arm caught Llelo across the chest, sent the boy reeling. Flung backward, he crashed into the table; the trestle boards buckled, plates and flagon and food thudding to the floor. The dog scrambled for safety, began to bark, and Gruffydd's favorite falcon snapped its tether, soared off its perch and swooped about the chamber with the wolfhound now in frenzied pursuit. Gruffydd sat up abruptly, blinking in dazed dismay at the chaotic scene that met his eyes. He swore, snarled a command that dropped the dog down in a submissive crouch. The falcon circled and then alighted upon the bed canopy. Gruffydd rubbed his eyes, swore again. And only then did he see his son sprawled amidst the wreckage upon the floor.
"Llelo? What are you doing here? What —" He broke off, seeing the blood trickling down the boy's chin. "How did you hurt yourself? Did I ... did I hit you, Llelo?"
Llelo shook his head, got unsteadily to his feet. "No, Papa." He swallowed. "You cried out in your sleep and I ... I sought to wake you. When I fell, I bit my lip."
For a long moment, they regarded each other in silence. They were very unlike. Gruffydd's hair was almost as red as the hearth flames, his eyes a clear cat-green, while Llelo's coloring was dark. He had begun to assess the damage done, and now turned wide brown eyes upon Gruffydd's face, eyes that showed sudden alarm. How could he have caused so much havoc with such good intentions?
"Come here, lad," Gruffydd said, and Llelo swallowed again, wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his tunic, then sat cautiously on the edge of the bed. To Gruffydd, he seemed like a wild bird poised for flight; he flinched as Gruffydd touched his arm.
"Well, I'll grant you this, Llelo. When you set out to wake a man, you take no half-measures."
Llelo's eyes widened even farther. Still not fully convinced that he was to escape unscathed, he could not help grinning, nonetheless. "I am sorry about the broken flagon, Papa," he said, and Gruffydd shrugged.
"I expect it can be mended. But what of you? You took quite a tumble. Are you sure that you need no mending yourself?"
Now, it was Llelo's turn to shrug; he'd taken much sharper buffets from Owain. "Papa ... do you remember your dream?"
Gruffydd's mouth tightened so noticeably that he'd have called the question back if only he could. He tensed, but then his father's shoulders slumped. "Yes, I remember," he said, so low that Llelo had to strain to catch his words. "But I'd rather not talk of it, Llelo. And I'd not have you talk of it, either. I want you to keep this night to yourself, lad. Will you do that for me?"
Llelo stared at him, mouth ajar, eyes full of wonder that his father would ask when his was the right to command. For most of his life, Gruffydd had been a remote and forbidding figure, quick-tempered, not easy to please. And now, Llelo marveled, he needs my help! Now they shared a secret, a secret somehow shameful, one his father did not want known. "I'll not tell a living soul, Papa! I swear by all the saints," he vowed, and spat on the floor to seal the bargain.
Gruffydd laughed, was surprised to find he could. Most often he was shaken for hours after one of the dreams, despairing of what he saw as base weakness, dreading the nightmare's recurrence. "Good lad," he said, and for the first time, he found he could look into his son's dark eyes and see no ghosts, see beyond the boy's disquieting resemblance to the man whose name he bore, the man who had given Gruffydd life and then taken away six years of it.
"We ought to sweep up the chamber, Papa, ere Mama comes back," Llelo suggested, an eager accomplice in this complicity of silence. But even as he spoke, they heard the footsteps upon the stairs.
The door was shoved back; Senena and Owain burst into the room. "Gruffydd? A servant said he heard a fearful crash! Are you all right? Did you — Llelo?"
Senena's voice registered more than surprise, it registered disapproval. Owain was even more outspoken, saying accusingly, "What are you doing here, Llelo?"
Llelo was accustomed to finding himself in the wrong. He said nothing, retreated into the stubborn silence that his parents and brother found so infuriating. But this night was to be different; he was to have a defender. As Senena frowned, started to speak, Gruffydd said, "He heard me cry out in my sleep, deserves no rebuke."
Owain's face was easily read; his surprise was all too apparent. Senena's eyes flew to her husband's face, and Llelo was forgotten.
"Was it your dream again, beloved?" She was meticulous in the keeping of her house, prized her possessions. But now she never even glanced at the broken crockery strewn about the floor, hastening toward the bed. "I should have been here for you! But that accursed storm, I could not sleep ..." As she spoke, she was fluffing the pillow, smoothing the sheets, stroking her husband's tousled hair. Llelo could not look away; he'd not known that his mother's hands, so sure and so capable, could be so tender, too.
Gruffydd seemed content to be ministered to, and he raised no objection when Senena insisted he lie back in bed. "I know what you need, love, a cup of hot mulled wine, well sweetened with honey. Owain, go to the kitchen, see that a servant fetches it straightaway. Llelo, go to bed."
She was not a woman to repeat herself; both boys obeyed at once. But just before they reached the bottom step in the stairwell, Owain stopped abruptly, shoved Llelo back against the wall. "You keep your mouth shut about this, you understand? Not a word to a single soul!"
Unable to free himself, Llelo glared at his brother. "I take no orders from you!"
Owain had the proverbial temper of the flaming redhead, and reacted with rage, cuffing the younger boy across the ear. "Curse you, this is no game! I'm warning you in earnest!"
"Owain!" Senena was standing at the top of the stairs. "Let him be!" They retreated before her wrath, into the hall. She swiftly followed, but to Llelo's gratified surprise, this time the object of her anger was Owain, her favorite, her confederate.
"I'd expect no better from Llelo, but you're nigh on eighteen. Would you add to your father's cares? This is no time for a foolish squabble, and yet you —"
"But ... but Mama!" Owain had inherited his father's uncommon height, towered over his diminutive mother. There was no defiance in his protest, though, only the indignation of one who'd been done an unjust injury. "I was not squabbling with Llelo! I was seeking to make sure he does not spread the story of Papa's bad dream all over Llewelyn's court."
Senena had compelling eyes, a dark sea-grey; they focused now on her younger son with sudden and unnerving intensity. "Why should you fear that, Owain?"
"Jesú, Mama, you do not know? Llelo thinks the sun itself does rise and set at Llewelyn's whim!"
Llelo gasped, and Owain swung around to face him. "Dare you deny it? I've seen him, Mama, seen him trailing after Llewelyn like a starveling puppy, begging for a smile, a pat on the head. He seeks to please Llewelyn as a pagan seeks to appease an infidel god, and this would be a rare offering, indeed, a tale to give Llewelyn great amusement."
Llelo did not think his grandfather would be amused at all, but he knew better than to venture a defense of Llewelyn. And there was more at stake. His pride stung by Owain's jeer, he said hotly, "He lies, Mama! I'd never tell on Papa, never!"
"I would to God I could believe that," Owain snapped, but subsided when Senena held up a hand for silence.
"Owain, your father waits for the wine."
He nodded, gave Llelo one last warning look, and Llelo silently mouthed the word "churl," that being the worst insult he knew.
If Senena noticed, she gave no sign. As soon as they were alone behind the screen, she said, "I think we must talk, Llelo. Come closer, so we do not disturb the others sleeping in the hall."
"Mama, I would not tell, truly I would not."
"I want to believe you," she said quietly. Although she was looking directly into his face, it seemed to Llelo that she was not truly seeing him, and he shifted nervously. At last, she said, "I know you have no memories of your father's confinement at Deganwy Castle. You were too young, a babe when his imprisonment began, only six when it ended. It was very difficult for your father; he of all men could never abide being caged. Owain was old enough to understand. But you and your sister were too young. Like all children, you would play your games, shriek and squabble, ask awkward questions ..." She stopped, appeared to sigh.
"It seemed best to send you and Gwladys to Llewelyn's court, rather than to keep you with us at Deganwy. Better for Gruffydd, and for you. I hoped, too, that it might help, having you serve as a constant reminder to Llewelyn of the evil he'd done. I thought, Let him look upon his son's child and remember that son, mayhap relent. Well, two years ago he did, set Gruffydd free. We took you back then ... or so I thought."
"Hush, child, listen. I can understand, Llelo. Your grandfather is a man of uncommon talents, and he has ever been able to bedazzle when he so chooses. Over the hearth fires of our people, they talk of his exploits and the legends take wing. The bards sing his praises, call him the Lion of Gwynedd, Llewelyn the Great. What youngster would not take pride in such a celebrated kinsman?"
She reached out suddenly, grasped the boy by the shoulders. "But it must not be, Llelo. Under Welsh law, a man's lands are divided amongst all his sons. That Gruffydd was base-born matters for naught in Wales. When Llewelyn dies, Gruffydd has a blood right to his share of Gwynedd."
Her grip had tightened; she was unknowingly hurting her son. "But Llewelyn scorned the ancient laws of our countrymen, adopted the alien customs of our enemies. He decreed that Gwynedd should pass to Davydd, his younger son, his half-English son. He raised Davydd up over Gruffydd, and when Gruffydd protested the loss of his birthright, Llewelyn cast him into Deganwy Castle."
"But he did free Papa, and gave him Llýn, part of Lower Powys ..." Llelo's words trailed off, a broken breath atremble with swallowed tears.
"Ll n, Powys!" Senena spat out the words. "What are they but crumbs from his table? He has cheated Gruffydd of a crown, has cursed his nights with dreams of Deganwy, and there can be no forgiveness for him. Not from Gruffydd, not from me, and not from you. To give love to Llewelyn is to betray your father." She stepped back. "You're old enough now to understand that," she said, and turned away without another word, left him alone.
Gruffydd, his wife, and children reached Llewelyn's palace at Aber soon after dusk on Monday, Epiphany Eve. As they entered the great hall, an expectant hush fell. Gruffydd moved toward the dais, greeted his father with brittle courtesy. If Gruffydd's grievance lay open and bleeding, Llewelyn's was an internal wound. His voice was even, his face impassive as he said, "You and your family are ever welcome at my court."
As Llelo started forward, Owain grabbed his arm, murmured against his ear, "Remember, not a word to Llewelyn or his Norman-French slut about Papa's bad dreams!"
Llelo jerked his arm away, and then turned at the sound of his name, turned with reluctance for he'd recognized her voice. The Lady Joanna, his grandfather's consort. Sister to the English King Henry, daughter to King John of evil fame, the mother of Davydd. The woman Owain called the "Norman-French slut." She was smiling at Llelo, making him welcome. She'd never been anything but kind to him, but he could not respond to her kindness; he dare not. She was his father's enemy, the foreign witch who'd cast a sexual spell upon his grandfather, brought about Gruffydd's ruin. Llelo knew the litany of his House by heart. That the witch herself was soft-spoken, friendly, and fair to look upon only made him fear her all the more, for he suspected that he, too, could fall prey to her alien charms. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Falls the Shadow by Sharon Kay Penman. Copyright © 1988 Sharon Kay Penman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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