Authors: Mark Noce
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To endure a dilemma is to stand between two fires.
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
in Ireland and
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.