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Here Be Dragons
By Sharon Kay Penman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1985 Sharon Kay Penman
All rights reserved.
He was ten years old and an alien in an unfriendly land, made an unwilling exile by his mother's marriage to a Marcher border lord. His new stepfather seemed a kindly man, but he was not of Llewelyn's blood, not one of the Cymry, and each dawning day in Shropshire only intensified Llewelyn's heartsick longing for his homeland.
For his mother's sake, he did his best to adapt to the strangeness of English ways. He even tried to forget the atrocity stories that were so much a part of his heritage, tales of English conquest and cruelties. His was a secret sorrow he shared with no one, for he was too young to know that misery repressed is misery all the more likely to fester.
It was on a Saturday morning a fortnight after his arrival at Caus Castle that Llewelyn mounted his gelding and rode north, toward the little village of Westbury. He had not intended to go any farther, but he was bored and lonely and the road beckoned him on. Ten miles to the east lay the town of Shrewsbury, and Llewelyn had never seen a town. He hesitated, but not for long. His stepfather had told him there were five villages between Westbury and Shrewsbury, and he recited them under his breath as he rode: Whitton, Stony Stretton, Yokethul, Newnham, and Cruckton. If he kept careful count as he passed through each one, there'd be no chance of getting lost, and with luck, he'd be back before his mother even realized he was gone.
Accustomed to forest trails and deer tracks, he found it strange to be traveling along a road wide enough for several horsemen to ride abreast. Stranger still to him were the villages, each with its green and market cross, its surprisingly substantial stone church surrounded by a cluster of thatched cottages and an occasional fishpond. They were in truth little more than hamlets, these Shropshire villages that so intrigued Llewelyn, small islands scattered about in a sea of plough-furrowed fields. But Llewelyn's people were pastoral, tribal, hunters and herdsmen rather than farmers, and these commonplace scenes of domestic English life were to him as exotic as they were unfamiliar.
It was midday before he was within sight of the walls of Shrewsbury Castle. He drew rein, awed. Castle keep and soaring church spires, a fortified arched bridge spanning the River Severn, and the roofs of more houses than he could begin to count. He kept his distance, suddenly shy, and after a time he wheeled the gelding, without a backward glance for the town he'd come so far to see.
He did not go far, detouring from the road to water his horse at Yokethul Brook, and it was there that he found the other boy. He looked to be about nine, as fair as Llewelyn was dark, with a thatch of bright hair the color of sun-dried straw, and grass-green eyes that now focused admiringly upon Llewelyn's mount.
Llewelyn slid to the ground, led the gelding forward with a grin that encouraged the other boy to say, in the offhand manner that Llewelyn was coming to recognize as the English equivalent of a compliment, "Is that horse yours?"
"Yes," Llewelyn said, with pardonable pride. "He was foaled on a Sunday, so I call him Dydd Sul."
The other boy hesitated. "You sound ... different," he said at last, and Llewelyn laughed. He'd been studying French for three years, but he had no illusions about his linguistic skills.
"That is what Morgan, my tutor, says too," he said cheerfully. "I expect it is because French is not my native tongue."
"You are not ... English, are you?"
Llewelyn was momentarily puzzled, but then he remembered. The people he thought of as English thought of themselves as Norman-French, even though it was more than a hundred years since the Duke of Normandy had invaded and conquered England. The native-born English, the Saxons, had been totally subdued. Unlike us, Llewelyn thought proudly. But he knew the Normans had for the Saxons all the traditional scorn of the victors for the vanquished, and he hastened to say, "No, I am not Saxon. I was born in Gwynedd, Cymru ... what you know as Wales."
The green eyes widened. "I've never met a Welshman before," he said slowly, and it occurred to Llewelyn that, just as he'd been raised on accounts of English treachery and tyranny, this boy was likely to have been put to bed at night with bloody tales of Welsh border raids.
"I'll show you my cloven hoof if you'll show me yours," he offered, and the other boy looked startled and then laughed.
"I am Llewelyn ab Iorwerth ..." He was unable to resist adding, "Ab Owain Fawr," for Llewelyn was immensely proud that he was a grandson of Owain the Great, proud enough to disregard Morgan's oft-repeated admonition against such bragging.
But the younger boy did not react, and Llewelyn realized with a distinct shock that the name meant nothing to him. He seemed to want to respond to Llewelyn's friendliness, but there was a certain wariness still in his eyes. "I am Stephen de Hodnet." He hesitated again. "You do not live in Shropshire, do you? I mean, if you are Welsh ..."
The implication seemed clear: if he was Welsh, why was he not in Wales where he belonged? Llewelyn was more regretful than resentful, for this past fortnight had been the loneliest of his life. "I'm staying at Caus Castle," he said coolly, and reached for Sul's reins.
"Caus Castle!" The sudden animation in Stephen's voice took Llewelyn by surprise. "Lord Robert Corbet's castle? You're living there?"
Llewelyn nodded, bemused. "For now I am. My lady mother was wed a fortnight ago to Sir Hugh Corbet, Robert's brother. You know them?"
Stephen laughed. "Who in Shropshire does not know the Corbets? They are great lords. My papa says they have more manors than a dog has fleas. In fact, he hopes to do homage to Lord Robert for the Corbet manor at Westbury." And he then proceeded, unasked, to inform Llewelyn that he was the youngest son of Sir Odo de Hodnet, that the de Hodnets were vassals of Lord Fulk Fitz Warin, holding manors of Fitz Warin at Moston and Welbatch, that he was a page in Fitz Warin's household at Alberbury Castle.
Llewelyn was a little hazy about the intricacies of English landholding, but he did know that a vassal was a tenant of sorts, holding land in return for rendering his overlord forty days of military service each year, and he was thus able to make some sense of this outpouring of names, places, and foreign phrases. What he could not at first understand was Stephen's sudden thawing, until he realized that the name Corbet was his entry into Stephen's world. It was, he thought, rather like that story Morgan had once told him, a tale brought back by the crusaders from the Holy Land, of a man who'd been able to gain access to a cave full of riches merely by saying the words "Open Sesame!"
This realization gave Llewelyn no pleasure; it only reinforced his conviction that English values were beyond understanding. How else explain that he should win acceptance not for what truly mattered, his blood-ties to Owain Fawr, the greatest of all Welsh princes, but for a marriage that he felt should never have been? All at once he was caught up in a surge of homesickness, a yearning for Wales so overwhelming that he found himself blinking back tears.
Stephen did not notice, had not yet paused for breath. "... and my papa says Caus is the strongest of all the border castles, that it could withstand a siege verily until Judgment Day. Tell me — is it true that Lord Robert has a woven cloth on the floor of his bedchamber?"
Llewelyn nodded. "It is called a ... a carpet, was brought back from the Holy Land." He could see that Stephen was on the verge of interrogating him at tiresome length about a subject that interested him not at all, and he said quickly, "But I know naught of castles, Stephen. Nor do I much like living in one. We do not have them in my land, you see."
Stephen looked incredulous. "None at all?"
"Just those that were built by the Normans. Our people live in houses of timber, but they're scattered throughout the mountains, not all clustered together like your English villages."
It was obviously a novel thought to Stephen, that not all cultures and societies were modeled after his own. They were both sitting on the bank by the stream and he rolled over in the grass, propped his chin in his hands, and said, "Tell me more about the Welsh."
Llewelyn no longer had any reservations about boasting of his bloodlines. Stephen was so woefully ignorant that it was truly a charitable act to enlighten him, he decided, and proceeded to acquaint Stephen with some of the more legendary exploits of his celebrated grandfather, giving his imagination free rein.
"And so," he concluded, having at last run out of inspiration, "when my grandfather died, his sons fought to see who would succeed him. My father was deprived of his rightful inheritance, and Gwynedd is now ruled by my uncles, Rhodri and Davydd."
Welsh names were falling fast and free — to Stephen's unfamiliar ears, much like the musical murmurings of Yokethul Brook. But one fact he'd grasped quite clearly. A prince was a prince, be he Welsh or Norman, and he looked at Llewelyn with greatly increased respect. "Wait," he begged. "Let me be sure I do follow you. Your grandfather was a Prince of ... Gwynedd, and your lady mother is the daughter of a Prince of ...?"
"Powys. Marared, daughter of Prince Madog ap Meredydd. My father was killed when I was a babe, and ere my mother wed Hugh Corbet, we lived with her kin in Powys ..."
Llewelyn had not begun talking until he was nearly two, and since then, his mother often teased, he seemed bound and determined to make up for all that lost time. Now, with so satisfactory an audience as Stephen and a subject that was so close to his heart, he outdid himself, and Stephen learned that among the Welsh there was no greater sin than to deny hospitality to a traveler, that Welshmen scorned the chain-mail armor of the English knight, that Llewelyn's closest friends were boys named Rhys and Ednyved, and the ancient Welsh name for Shrewsbury was Pengwern.
The sun had taken on the dull, red-gold haze of coming dusk as Llewelyn obligingly gave Stephen a lesson in the basics of Welsh pronunciation. "Say Rhys like this: Rees. And Ed-nev-ed. Now try Gruffydd; it sounds like your Griffith. In Welsh, the double 'd' is pronounced as 'th.' So my little brother's name is spelled A-d-d-a, but we say it as A-tha, Welsh for Adam." He paused, his head cocked. "Do you hear that? Someone is calling your name."
Stephen scrambled to his feet so fast he all but tumbled down the brook embankment. "My brother! Jesú, but he'll flay me alive!"
"I coaxed him into taking me with him to Shrewsbury this morn. We agreed to meet at St George's bridge and I ... I just forgot!"
"Well, cannot you say you're sorry and ..."
Stephen shook his head, staring at the boys now mounting the crest of the hill. "No, not with Walter. He ... he's not much for forgiveness ..."
The approaching boys looked to be about fourteen. The youngster in the lead had Stephen's butter-yellow hair. He strode up to Stephen and, without a word, struck the younger boy across the face, with enough force to send Stephen sprawling.
"We've been looking for you for nigh on two hours! I've a mind to leave you here, and damned well should!"
As Walter reached down and jerked Stephen to his feet, Llewelyn came forward. He'd taken an instant dislike to Walter de Hodnet, but for Stephen's sake, he sought to sound conciliatory as he said, "It was my fault, too. We were talking and ..."
Walter's eyes flicked to his face, eyes of bright blue, iced with sudden suspicion. "What sort of lowborn riffraff have you taken up with now, Stephen?"
Llewelyn flushed. "I am Llewelyn ab Iorwerth," he said after a long pause; instinct was now alerting him to trouble. At the same time Stephen burst into nervous speech.
"He is a Welsh Prince, Walter, and ... and he's been telling me all about Wales ..."
"Oh, he has?" Walter said softly, and Stephen, who knew his brother well enough to be forewarned, tried to shrink back. But Walter still had a grip on his tunic. With his other hand he grasped a fistful of Stephen's hair and yanked, until Stephen's head was drawn back so far that he seemed to be staring skyward, and was whimpering with pain.
"That's just what I could expect from you. No more common sense than the stupidest serf, not since the day you were born. So he's been telling you about Wales? Did he tell you, too, about the crops burned in the fields, the villages plundered, the women carried off?" Releasing Stephen, he swung around suddenly on Llewelyn.
"Suppose you tell him about it now. Tell my lack-wit brother about the border raids, tell him how brave your murdering countrymen are against defenseless peasants and how they run like rabbits when we send men-at- arms against them!"
Sul was grazing some yards away, and for several moments Llewelyn had been measuring the distance, wanting nothing so much as to be up on the gelding's back and off at a breakneck run. But with Walter's taunt, he froze where he was, pride temporarily prevailing over fear. He'd never run like a rabbit, never. But there was a betraying huskiness in his voice as he said, "I have nothing to say to you."
Walter was flanked by his two companions; they'd moved closer to Llewelyn, too close, and he took a backward step. But he dared retreat no farther, for the brook embankment was at his back and he did not know how to swim. He stood very still, head held high, for he'd once seen a stray spaniel face down several larger dogs by showing no fear. They stepped in, tightening the circle, but made no move to touch him. He was never to know how long the impasse might have lasted, for at that moment one of the boys noticed Sul.
"Damn me if he does not have his own mount! Where would a Welsh whelp get a horse like that?"
"Where do you think?" Walter, too, was staring at the chestnut, with frankly covetous eyes. "You know what they say. Scratch a Welshman, find a horse thief."
Llewelyn felt a new and terrible fear, for he'd raised Sul from a spindle-legged foal; Sul was his pride, his heart's passion. He forgot all else, and grabbed at Walter's arm as the older boy turned toward Sul. "He's mine, to me! You leave him be!"
It was a grievous mistake, and he paid dearly for it. They were on him at once, all three of them, and he went down in a welter of thudding fists and jabbing elbows. He flailed out wildly, desperately, but he could match neither his assailants' strength nor their size, and he was soon pinned down in the trampled grass, Walter's knees on his chest, his mouth full of his own blood.
"Misbegotten sons of Satan, the lot of you!" Walter panted. "Bloody bastards, not worth the hanging ..." And if the profanity sat self-consciously on his lips, flaunted as tangible proof of passage into the mysteries of manhood, the venom in his voice was not an affectation, was rooted in a bias that was ageless, breathed in from birth.
"Know you what we mean to do now, Welsh rabbit? Pluck you as clean as a chicken ..." He reached out, tore the crucifix chain from Llewelyn's neck. "Spoils of war, starting with that chestnut horse you stole. You can damned well walk back to Wales, mother-naked, and just thank your heathen gods that we did not hang you for a horse thief! Go on, Philip, I'll hold him whilst you get his boots ..."
Sul. They were going to take Sul. His bruised ribs, his bloodied nose, hurt and humiliation and impotent fury — all of that was nothing now, not when balanced against the loss of Sul. Llewelyn gave a sudden frantic heave, caught Walter off guard, and rolled free. But as quick as he was, the third boy was quicker, and before he could regain his feet, an arm had crooked around his neck, jerking him backward. And then Walter's fist buried itself in his midsection and all fight went out of him; he lay gasping for breath, as if drowning in the very air he was struggling to draw into his lungs.
"Walter, no!" Stephen had at last found his voice. "He's not a nobody, he's highborn and kin by marriage to Lord Corbet of Caus! He's stepson to Hugh Corbet, Walter, and nephew to Lord Robert!"
Excerpted from Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. Copyright © 1985 Sharon Kay Penman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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