Authors: Ethan Risso
Bronwen looked down at the courtyard from her bedroom window as Lady Rhiannon and her party left through the main gate. Before her father informed her of the marriage to the high king, she never thought she would lay eyes upon the Meïnir. They stayed far from the borders of Annwyd, hidden away in their forests. The horrible tales of their heathen ways terrified her, and she found it hard to forget the images her young mind painted. She turned her eyes away, lest they cast some spell upon her. She had no desire to be stolen away to the land of the faeries.
Dressed only in her shift, she wrapped a blanket around herself to keep warm as she surveyed her room. Cærwyn was hardly a suitable place for her to call home. And this room…so plain. It was far different from Castle Rotham. There, she had a lavish dwelling and many servants. She had been led to believe she would have the same appurtenances here, but she found few.
Bronwen shuddered at the thought of her wedding night. Her nursemaid, Mara, told her awful tales of the pain she would experience. A pious girl, Bronwen did not speak of such things, and had no knowledge of them. Mara had given her a small vile of blood from the slaughterhouse and explained if her new husband could not consummate the marriage, the blame would fall upon Bronwen. Such a thing could render the marriage invalid. If that were the case, she was to sprinkle the blood over the sheets to provide evidence of consummation for the morning, when Father Andras would inspect the bed.
“She is to marry the high king?”
Bronwen felt a chill dance up her spine as she recalled, all too well, her brother’s shrill question. Though nearing manhood, now in his thirteenth year, Madoc was still full of childish inclinations.
Again, she gazed wistfully out the window at the sprawling landscape. Several days ago, when they first landed near the abbey at the Northfeld docks, it looked somewhat promising. The landscape was filled with quaint but lively villages surrounded by rolling plains and lush green trees. The promise that initial view provided was short-lived, however. As they traveled south to Castle Cærwyn, they rode through several villages comprised of hovels, at best, that smelled of sewage and the stench of poverty. It was not until they were two days ride to the south that the appearance of larger towns became more frequent.
And this was with which Alric expected to impress his high queen? No, she would only be queen consort and nothing more. To have any power of her own, she must learn, and learn quickly, how to bend the king to her will.
She once again grimaced at the thought of her future husband. He was not an attractive man. In his youth, he may have been quite handsome, but now, his battle-worn face was haggard and unappealing. He was almost a decade older than her father and three decades older than she.
She wrapped her arms around herself and closed her eyes. The thought of giving birth at such a young age did not appeal to her. Her breasts would not be so taut and high in a year’s time with a child suckling. She had always wanted children, but to be expected to produce an heir to the throne so soon…
Of course an heir for this older man was of utmost importance. She must use this to her advantage. Being the woman to give birth to the high king’s firstborn son would give her special privileges. Though the king may have fathered many unknown bastards, her son would be the only legitimate heir to the throne.
There was a knock at the door, followed by a soft voice from the hall. “Bronwen, may I enter?”
Mara carried a small chest. She set it on the bedside table before she closed the door.
“Your future husband has requested I deliver this gift to you, my Lady. It would seem he wishes to spoil you with fine things to enter into your favor.” Mara fetched Bronwen’s clothes draped over a chair. “Although, it is not your favor which he wishes to enter.”
“Mara! Do not speak of such things!” Bronwen blushed, still unaccustomed to her more brash Ordanian ways, which she noticed far more now that she had come of age.
She opened the chest as Mara dressed her, surprised to find such a beautiful necklace. It was the finest gold chain she had ever seen. The Duamor must have designed it. It was too finely made to be from a Hume jewel smith. She lifted it from the folds of linen and smiled as candlelight bounced off the center jewel. Certainly he wished to allay her fear with this trinket after the assault on her new home.
These were times of peace, but Bronwen knew she would be daft indeed if she did not pay close attention to politics. Her father did not speak of such things to her. She learned to pick up bits of information by listening to her father speak with the Senate of Annwyd, a parliamentary group of men who stood in the same seat of power as her father.
Mara stopped short at the doors to the main hall. King Denorheim stood before them, and Bronwen took her father’s hand. As they entered the hall, it astonished her to see far more people at the meeting than she presumed, but, under the circumstances, it should not have been unexpected. The other nobles were already seated at the table.
She kept pace just behind her father as he walked toward the head of the table. He motioned for her to be seated, and she took her place at the king’s left, her father at her side. Alric smiled to her and she bowed her head, keeping her eyes lowered.
Bronwen fidgeted as all eyes at the table fell upon her. An ugly man beyond her father’s side guzzled mead from a tankard, beads of liquid clung to his beard. The only other woman at the table was a Duamor, Lady Heid Ivatholl. She did not know Heid Ivatholl very well, but she would have preferred the table filled with men. She knew all too well the judgmental stares of women at court. Alric placed his hand upon hers, and the warmth from his hand comforted her. She glanced up and found him not completely unattractive. Beyond the pock marks and grey beard, he might yet be quite handsome.
It was then, when all of her attention should have been placed on her new husband, that she saw him. Clad in royal garb, he entered through the doors of the main hall without escort. A most beautiful man, certainly not like the altogether ordinary men in Annwyd. His skin was like that of cream, with deep, crimson lips. He had only a hint of a beard, recently shaved, and his honey-colored hair was shorn quite short. He looked more like that of an officer in the Annwydian army than a member of royalty.
“Ah, Rhodri, you have arrived.” Alric stood from the table and embraced him before turning his attention to Bronwen once more. “My Lady, this is my nephew, Duke Rhodri of Helygen.”
“It is an honor to meet you, Lady Bronwen.” Rhodri bowed. “Might I introduce my wife?”
Bronwen felt as though a knife wrenched in her chest as she saw Rhodri’s wife step forward. She was a Meïnir.
“Ah, Lady Siana, my halls are once again brightened by your luminous presence.” Alric clasped her hand in his own.
“I am pleased to see you as well, my Lord. I am in your presence far too infrequently.”
“And this is the woman I am to wed, the Lady Bronwen of Annwyd.”
Siana bowed her head slightly. “It is my honor, Lady.”
Bronwen felt herself shrink back. She took notice of her movement and made sure to bow her head. “And you.”