Authors: Ethan Risso
“It is an honor to once again be in your fine court, Your Majesty.” Denorheim sat to Alric’s left, across from Rhodri. “My son, Madoc, sends his regards and regrets he could not travel to your most excellent kingdom.”
“Please return his regards with utmost diligence.” Alric smiled. “I trust your son is well.”
“He will make a fine king one day.”
Connor looked at King Denorheim’s false smile and worried eyes as he gave Alric an answer which seemed too-readily rehearsed.
Connor knew Annwyd and Cærwyn had rocky political ties at best. Annwyd was cordial with the crown of Cærwyn though, for the want of peace, if nothing else. It was, of course, advantageous to their relationship that the two kingdoms joined forces to battle the Meïnir during the conquering of Dweömer in the Blaidd Age.
“Perhaps it would be wise to start.” Reverent Father Andras set his goblet down.
“Yes, you are correct.” Alric coughed into his hand, his intent to draw their attention apparent. “I think it would be best to clear the room of unnecessary soldiers and their weapons. After all, are we not of a peaceful mind here?”
“Clear the guards from the room, my King?”
Connor looked in the direction of the deep, raspy voice.
“Yes, Duke Gweliwch. We have no need for them. Let them be merry in the courtyard festivities.”
There was a brief silence in the room. Not one of them moved until Alric cleared his throat. Connor watched as hesitant glances and gestures were given to the guardsmen around the hall, who filtered out of the room soon enough.
“This is far more accommodating,” Alric said. “Do you agree, Duke Gweliwch?”
Connor could sense trepidation in his uncle’s voice.
“Yes, my King.” Gweliwch took a swig of mead, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“We are all aware of the strained relations between the clans. Let us not complicate matters more and ignore this fact. This clansmeet was called to allay the fears of our people. They fear war approaches us from the north, and when word travels of the assault on Cærwyn, from the Féinmhuinín of Glyndwr in the west, their fear will grow. We do not need to add to it with unrest amongst ourselves.”
Rhodri straightened and leaned on the table, his clasped hands evoking the emotion in his words. “We need to strengthen our ties with one another to stand against our foes. We have lived in peace for many years, and this threat could not come at a worse time. The people sense things are not well.”
“Let us not forget, young man, that peace came only after the Humes conquered those who already inhabited Dweömer.”
Connor watched as his uncle stroked his beard, knowing he only did so when he was nervous. “The High Priest Cairbre speaks true. It has been, and continues to be, my vision that we might all live in a united Dweömer. Not one so strained by childish squabbling between clans.”
“The Divine of Ordanis feels, my King, if we were to unite the peoples under the banner of The One in Dweömer, it would give them great comfort. Let the strength of The Maker be bestowed to the people. Surely, if the high king himself prescribed openly to the One, the people would follow.”
Duke Gweliwch laughed. It was a deep, raucous belly laugh which made Connor uncomfortable. “Certainly, you do not suggest our king bend to those in Ordanis? Have we not long outgrown Ordanian chains? Why not go one step further and submit to the subjugation of High King Æthelwulf himself? Though his castle may be in Hēafodstōl, his true throne is firmly under the thumb of your Divine, is it not?”
“Andras, our religion embraces yours, why do you not reciprocate?” The Meïnir high priestess, Rhiannon, spoke with resound from the other side of the table and Connor’s gaze locked upon her.
“It is our belief the people seek refuge from the savagery which has reigned in this land for so long. They no longer believe in your Old Ways—”
“For you tell them not to!” Cairbre stood up and slammed his hands on the table.
Alric made a slight gesture with his hand. “Please, Cairbre, be seated. I am still of the opinion that you both serve the great One above, no matter the name. There is no need to declare a religion, any religion, as mandate.”
“While you all bicker about religion, you leave it to me and my men to protect the lot of you!” Duke Rodric Gweliwch pounded his fist onto the table. “You sit here in the south while my territory keeps watch over the Gethin horde. If any man has the right to anger, it is I.”
“You forget, Duke Gweliwch, the Duamor also reign in the north, and we have kept watch of the Gethin far longer than you. Were it not for His Majesty’s gracious father, you would not even have title. Despite your fervor, Gweliwch remains a mere military outpost, just as it was in its birth, not some bastion against the Gethin. That burden has always fallen upon my people.”
“And who are you to make such claims?” Duke Gweliwch chortled, crossing his arms. Connor followed his glare to the woman.
“I am Lady Heid Ivatholl of Eurig, daughter of the Duamor king, ruler of Eurig and the Gabraëth mountain territories. Do not mistake me, for I certainly maintain respect for a strong military force. Yours, however, lacks the discipline of the Duamor.”
“You Duamor stay in your mountains, content that the Gethin will not travel so far west, and leave the real work to Gweliwch!”
Lady Ivatholl sneered. “And without our mining or our herds, where would you be? My people have been mining the land for many generations and selling our findings and wares to you and your kinsman. Without us, you would be lost—”
King Denorheim raised his hands. “My Lord, my Lady, it is not productive to argue about who has been watching the north for longer. No matter who keeps watch, the Gethin threaten us all.”
“King Denorheim is right,” Rhodri said. “We must unite against those who threaten us all.”
“Which is why I have proposed—”
Alric interrupted. “In order to strengthen ties between the kingdoms of Annwyd and Cærwyn, King Denorheim has proposed a marriage between his daughter, Bronwen, and I…an offer I have accepted.”
Connor’s eyes widened at the proclamation. His uncle had not said anything to him about the offer of marriage, nor his acceptance. It became clear the young girl, the girl Connor had presumed was younger than he, was to be his uncle’s bride.
The nobles below were silent for a time. It would seem they too had not expected such an announcement.
“The union between the high king and a woman raised in reverence of the One is of great political importance, as is any offspring that comes from this union. It strengthens the resolve followers have to stay loyal to the crown of Cærwyn.” Andras was in obvious good spirits as he took another sip of wine.
“And what reason do we have to care for the political importance of a marriage between the high king and someone of your faith?” High Priest Cairbre crossed his arms. “What benefit does this offer Arlais? Your Hume politics do not concern us. If anything, this will prove detrimental to the Meïnir and Arlais. Why should the high priestess and I take comfort in such a marriage—?”
Rhiannon lifted her hand from her lap and Cairbre stopped mid-sentence. “Duke Helygen, you have been a friend to the Meïnir, as was your father, Cadfael, before you. You are a follower of the Old Ways, and you have even married one of our own. What say you to this union?”
“My Lady, I have never known my uncle to be anything but a supporter of the Old Ways. The marriage between him and a follower of The One will show the people that this religious strife is not as important as the threat of war.”
“My nephew speaks honestly and with true passion. It is not often that one finds a man who puts the good of his people ahead of his own political ambition.”
“While I cannot argue Lord Helygen’s honesty, it is not just, as he stated, religious strife that is the problem for our people. It is the religious persecution promoted by those like Father Andras.” Cairbre looked to Alric.
“What is this persecution of which he speaks?”
“My King, it has come to my attention there are some who look to the Maker and use force to bring His word. I had no foreknowledge of such things. I assure you, Lord Cairbre, that if I had known of such plans, I would have put a stop to them.”
“And you would certainly never endorse these actions, Andras.” Rhiannon turned to him, her brow tensed.
“Certainly not! To bring harm to others goes against what He teaches. I would rather see the world turn from His gaze than to see innocent blood spilled. I can assure you, I have no thoughts as to why a small sect has taken it upon itself to carry out such atrocities. You have my word, Lady, that I will put an end to them.”
Connor rubbed his chest. He realized the fire in the great hall long ago dwindled to embers, and the scent of the sweet grass had since faded. It grew colder inside as the wind whipped through the windows. He pulled his cloak around himself and stood back up, his legs tight and aching from his crouched position on the gallery floor.
“It would seem I was not the only one who had the idea to view the clansmeet from up here.”
Connor looked over to see Gawain standing in the doorway. Having met only briefly, Connor had not noticed the otherworldly appearance he displayed. His luminous skin was golden from time spent in the sun. He had a strong, square jaw lacking signs of scruff. His tousled hair was filled with braids, like the forest folk, and his grey eyes had the unmistakable gleam that only the forest dwellers had—a spark that Humes did not possess—a light that signified they saw more of this world than the unknowing eyes of a Hume.
They were said to be the most beautiful creatures in Dweömer, almost indistinguishable from Humes except for subtle marks they possessed somewhere on their bodies. But they were normally tall and thin. This one looked much sturdier and only a bit taller than Connor.
“I could not resist listening in,” he finally whispered, realizing he had studied the boy’s features for far too long. “I am the reason, at least in part, they are having such discussions.”
“Have they said much on the attack?”
He shook his head. “Not much. They are preoccupied with the Gethin horde in the north.”
“My father’s main concern, no doubt.”
Connor followed Gawain’s gaze to those below. The Meïnir elder, Rhiannon, seemed to be looking at them. The room fell silent as Connor stared into her piercing eyes. He felt as though she could see through him, into his very soul. Overwhelmed with a strong feeling of complacency, something pulled at him from within and he could hear the sound of wings fluttering about.
He looked up to the ceiling to see two sparrows perched upon the rafters, huddled together from the wind. They shook the water from their bodies. He looked out the window to see that a storm had blown in and bathed the castle in rain. It lasted but a few minutes, and almost as fast as it had started, the rain stopped, and the clouds moved on into the distance.
“Will you attend the banquet?” Gawain’s voice snapped Connor back to reality.
He looked to Rhiannon, but she was no longer there. The room was filled with guests, and he realized quite some time had passed. “No…no, I do not think I have the appetite for it.”