Authors: J.D. Oswald
The Ballad of Sir Benfro ~ Volume One
When Balwen's last sits on the stolen throne,
And kitling sleeps beside the babe ne'er born,
When darkness stills the forest birds at noon,
In blood and fire Gwlad shall rise anew.
The Prophecies of Mad Goronwy
Wind ripped through the trees like war, tearing the last autumn leaves from the tortured branches and flinging them across the pathway. Rain heavy clouds scudded across the night sky, alternately covering and uncovering patches of dark, star-specked heavens. The thin glow from a shielded lantern on the front of the wagon cast insufficient light on the pathway. Occasional downpours crushed the ground, boiling the hard-packed earth in a short lived frenzy and spooking the horses as they pulled wearily at their task.
Father Gideon shivered, pulling his cloak tighter around his neck with one hand, gently teasing back the reins with the other. He whispered calming noises to the horses, trying to instil a sense of peace even though his words were whipped away on the wind, never reaching the twin pairs of pointed ears twitching back and forth on the edge of fear. It was difficult to judge distance in the dark, impossible to tell how long he had been driving through the foul storm, but he was fairly sure their destination was not far. A quiet sob of pain from behind him reminded him of why he was out here, braving this foul weather when he could have been back in the castle, enjoying a tankard of ale and a bowl of stew in front of the great refectory fire.
Pushing aside the dripping canvas flap, Father Gideon peered into the back of the wagon. A single hooded oil lamp lit the interior poorly with flickering, shadowy yellow light, swaying back and forth to the rhythm of the wheels on the track. Lying in the middle of the wagon, surrounded with blankets and cushions, the princess slept.
She looked almost at peace, for a change, although even sleep could not hide the shrunken lines of her once-beautiful face. Even sleep could not mask the laboured effort of every breath or the regular spasms that wracked her prone form from head to toe. The swelling of her belly, Prince Balch’s seed, stretched out of all proportion to the tiny, emaciated figure that carried it. Still, Father Gideon knew that it wasn’t the child that was killing Princess Lleyn. Her strength of character and desire to see the pregnancy to term were perhaps the only things keeping her alive. And for all his knowledge, gleaned from a lifetime of study and travel, of administering to the sick and needy, yet he had no idea what it was that had struck his charge so low.
A snickering whinny from one of the horses brought Father Gideon back to his senses. Turning away from the princess, he saw a faint light ahead and soon the wagon was pulling across a small clearing towards the cottage he had not visited in fifteen years.
It was a curious building, much larger than its proportions suggested. Two windows, one either side of a wide doorway, looked out onto a well cultivated vegetable patch. The structure was only one story high, and yet the apex of the simple roof was over thirty feet off the ground. The single stone chimney leaked thin smoke into the night and a comforting glow glinted past drawn curtains.
As he approached, the swirling wind changed in direction, coming straight from the cottage. Instantly the horses tensed and stopped, throwing their heads around in uncertainty and alarm. Cursing, Father Gideon remembered where he was, to whom he was forced to turn. With a flick of the reins, he turned the wagon around on the wide path so that it stood between the cottage and the horses. They calmed noticeably and he allowed them to drop their heads to the grass, pulling on the brake to stop them straying too far.
The princess weighed next to nothing, yet Father Gideon was aware that he was no longer a young man as he carried her the last few tens of yards to the cottage. As if sensing his arrival, the door opened as he climbed the first wooden step towards the wide deck that surrounded the whole cottage. A vast shape blocked most of the light from escaping and an irrational fear swept over him for an instant.
‘Gideon,’ the figure said, its voice at once low and yet unmistakeably feminine. ‘I was expecting you. Bring her in.’
‘Thankyou Morgwm,’ Father Gideon said. He knew there was no point in asking how she had known of his journey when none back at the castle knew that he was gone, let alone that he had brought the princess with him. Morgwm the Green had always been an enigma to him, but her knowledge of medicine was unsurpassed in the whole of Gwlad. Only the petty prejudices of men kept them from realising what treasures of hidden knowledge were her and her kind.
Morgwm stepped back to allow him entry to the front room of the cottage and he marvelled once more at how lithe such a big creature could be. Her tail looked to be a hindrance, yet it moved with her, missing all obstacles as if it had a mind of its own. Her taloned feet should have gouged the polished wooden floor and yet she trod with such delicate care that not a scratch could be seen.
‘You’re staring again, Gideon,’ Morgwm said, the bright scales around her eyes flickering in the light from the fire.
‘I’m sorry,’ Father Gideon said, a flustered embarrassment reddening his cheeks as if he were a teenager trying to speak to a girl who had caught his notice. ‘It’s just, I had forgotten.’
‘That I’m a dragon?’ Morgwm asked, a faint chuckle in her voice. ‘Would that all men could be so fair-minded. But come, place her here,’ she indicated a low table close to the fire which had been spread with thick blankets. ‘Let us see what is wrong with your girl.’
Father Gideon lowered his charge onto the table. She had slept throughout, although spasms of pain regularly wracked her body and a sheen of grey sweat damped her face, clagged her once-lustrous hair to the sides of her bony skull.
‘She was taken ill some months ago,’ he said, stepping aside so that Morgwm could get closer. ‘Not long after the child first began to show. I’ve tried all I know, yet she grows worse with each day.’
The dragon bent low over the princess, her hands going from head to neck to the large bulge of belly, razor sharp talons so close to delicate skin and yet never threatening. She hummed a low, indistinct noise interspersed with odd clicking noises as she set about her task. Father Gideon looked away, unable to help. He was standing to one side of the fire, beside which a large cauldron of water steamed gently. On the other side, a big basket sat just near enough to be warm without scorching. Something large sat inside it, wrapped in a blanket. Bread proving, he thought for a moment, except that it would have been a very large loaf, even for a dragon. Then he noticed a gap in the folded blanket showing something smooth, pale and speckled with tiny flecks of brown. A thrill passed through him as he recognised the egg, and with it came a chill fear. Morgwm surely risked a terrible punishment if discovered.
‘Gallweed,’ Morgwm said and a surge of guilt flooded through Father Gideon as he remembered why he was here.
‘Gallweed?’ He asked. It sparked a memory but he could not place it.
‘A nasty little poison. You humans have such dull senses, you cannot taste it, nor smell it. Your girl reeks of it. Someone has been administering her regular doses for months.’
‘Who would do such a thing?’ Father Gideon asked, although a nasty suspicion was forming in the back of his mind.
‘I was thinking you might be able to tell me,’ Morgwm said. ‘And who is this, who attracts such a rare, potent and expensive poison.’
‘You don’t know her?’ Father Gideon was surprised, perhaps expecting the dragon to know everything. But then it was unlikely she would ever have met any of the royal family. ‘This is Princess Lleyn, heir to the Obsidian Throne.’
He watched a brief flicker of fear flash across the dragon’s eyes, her hands draw back involuntarily from the prone body before her. Then her shoulders slumped a weary resignation and she turned once more to face him.
‘Well, I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do,’ Morgwm said. ‘Princess Lleyn is going to die.’
Morgwm looked at her old friend standing by the fire. He had not aged well in the years since last she had seen him, and her diagnosis seemed to knock something vital out of him. She turned once more to the princess and placed a hand on the great, taught, round sphere of her belly. Her fingers could feel the pulse of a heart, slow and weak like that of an old man, near death. Such was the way with gallweed. It would slowly suck the life out of a person. If Lleyn had really been ill for several months then she must have been a bright and vivacious person before then. Normally gallweed would kill in weeks, and that without the added burden of a pregnancy. Such a pity, to struggle so hard only for the baby to be stillborn. For it surely could be no other way.
A terrible spasm wrenched the princess’ body away from her touch. Morgwm reached out to try and push her back down onto the blankets, but with an almost inhuman strength, Lleyn sat bolt upright. Her eyes were wide open and yellow with her failing body. She reached out an arm, grabbing Morgwm’s and pulling the dragon close, seemingly insensible to the nature of her nursemaid.
‘My prince, oh Balch it hurts me so. Please, save the child,’ she whispered. Then another spasm creased her face, her grip loosened and she fell back to her blankets. Father Gideon was at her side as Morgwm laid a scaly hand on the side of Lleyn’s neck, then her forehead. The once-beautiful eyes stared unfocussed at the dark recesses of the ceiling and with a tender touch, Morgwm slid them closed.
‘I am sorry, Gideon, truly. Even if you had come to me at the start of this I could only have made her passing easier. She was dead from the first drop of poison.’
Father Gideon looked down at the lifeless form of princess, his eyes brimmed with tears, his face drained of blood. Morgwm made to touch him, to try and comfort him, but the poor man looked like his knees would give way if a feather landed on his shoulder, so instead she busied herself with tidying up the body. In death Lleyn looked calmer, less pained, although not even the end could hide her terrible emaciation. Her muscles had relaxed now, her arms fallen to the sides of the table, her naked feet splayed slightly. Only the heavy swell of her belly still seemed taught and quivering. Morgwm placed a hand on it, aware of the last ebbing warmth through the thin fabric. Not one death today, but two.
Then she felt it. A tiny kick of defiance, and behind it, so faint as to be almost undetectable, a regular pulsing rhythm. A heartbeat.
‘The child. It lives still,’ Morgwm said. ‘I don’t know how. But then the poison should have killed it months ago. We must act quickly.’
Without waiting for Gideon, who was still staring forlornly at Lleyn’s calm face, Morgwm pulled the bed dress up over the mound of straining belly. Although not yet twenty years, the princess had the body of an old woman. Her skin hung limply over fleshless ribs and her legs were like sticks wound in soft leather. Ignoring the poison-wrought devastation, Morgwm felt closely around the swell of belly, trying to see how things lay beneath. Finally, with one razor sharp talon, she cut swiftly into the skin, parting it with delicate fingers and reaching within.
A short strangled squeak came from Father Gideon’s mouth as Morgwm lifted the small, blood-smeared baby from the cut in its mother’s belly. She slit the umbilicus and tied it in a neat little knot, then hung the child up by its legs and tapped it smartly on the back. Once, twice and then it coughed, clenched its tiny hands into fists and let out a great bawling wail.
‘Warm water, towels, now,’ Morgwm barked and Father Gideon jumped as if he had just been stung. Soon the baby was cleaned and wrapped in clean blankets, placed on a low bench dragged up close to the fire.
‘A boy,’ Gideon said, looking down into the wide-eyed face. ‘He has some of his father about him. That will come to haunt him in later life.’ The baby gurgled contentedly, then squealed with excitement as Morgwm stooped over him.
‘What am I to do with him?’ Gideon asked, watching with wonder as the huge dragon cradled the tiny child. ‘How shall I feed him? What shall I call him?’
‘Calm yourself Gideon, you’ll upset the child.’ Morgwm placed the bundle down on the bench again and went off to the storeroom. Herbs and spices were neatly packed in countless boxes and jars but she didn’t need to look for what she needed. Everything had a place and she knew exactly where it would be.
Taking water from the cauldron she mixed first a sticky black poultice and set it to steep by the fire. Next she took some white powder and stirred it into another bowl of water, adding cold until the temperature was just right. With the smallest spoon she could find, she once more took up the child and began to feed him.
‘Mother’s milk is the best feed for a newborn. It has so much in it that he needs. This powder will make a reasonable substitute, but the sooner we can find a wet nurse the better. Then we must cover our tracks.’
‘How so?’ Father Gideon asked. ‘The princess is dead.’ Morgwm could see the anguish in his eyes, hear it in his voice. Yet he was a practical man who would put off his mourning if need be.
‘Indeed she is,’ Morgwm replied. ‘And we must make it seem that the child died with her. I take it none know that you have brought her here?’
‘Good. You must take her back. I will make it look like she still carries the child. I am sorry Gideon, but you will probably be blamed for both their deaths.’