A Historical Romance story
by Maia England
- CHAPTER ONE -
- - - - -
The sun hung low in the sky like a ball of fire, shooting flaming arrows across the golden sea. The waters were calm tonight, like a mill-pond, or a glass sheet. Gentle waves lapped the soft yellow sand of the shoreline, rippling over it, inching steadily towards the coloured pebbles that lay at the top part of the beach.
Fishermen coming home from a long day out at sea drew their boats up onto the pebbles, tethering them to the poles placed evenly throughout the beach. They carried their catch easily, in netted bags made of horsehair rope; tough and unyielding, made to withstand the pincers of crabs caught in the shallows just outside of the river mouth.
My gaze returned to the horizon, as it did so often when I was alone. The sun had sunk ever lower; almost half of it had disappeared beyond the earth. In its dying flames was the silhouette of a majestic ship sailing across the sea, firmly placed directly in the red glare of the sun.
A gentle breeze rippled through the open window, fluttering over me and tangling in my hair. The sharp tangy scent of the ocean mingled with the rotting seaweed that plagued the town, but in my imagination another scent stirred. The soft awakening of long-forgotten dreams sent a pain through my heart like a poker of red-hot iron. I pushed them down firmly, ignoring to the best of my will the pretences my inner vision had conjured: the sweet smell of spices, long skeins of coloured silks, wicker baskets overflowing with jewels from foreign lands.
To me, that was the scent of adventure, the visions of deep longings that, even now, had the power to awaken my heart only to rip it apart once again.
I had been trapped here, in this tower, in this marriage, for so many years. It felt to me like an eternity, and yet it was barely four years. I had been plucked from the safe nest that was my home at the age of sixteen and sent hundreds of miles north to the wild beauty of the Welsh coast, with its tumultuous seas, its fierce winds and its blistering cold. I did not resent my family, for they were trying to do their best for me, but for my husband I spared no hatred.
He did not know it, I hoped, as he smiled at me across the table in the hall, or when he held me in his arms at night. For though I hated him, I feared his wrath and what he may do if he ever realised the extent to which I blamed him for all the wrongs in my life, all the hurt and upset over the years, and thus the depth of my hatred, which could race, unchallenged, unburdened, for all eternity.
The sun cast its last desperate fingers onto the sea, and, finding no finger hold, sank desperately into the water. And, with it, I turned towards the door and descended the stone staircase.
I sat opposite my husband across the dark wooden table in the East Hall. The fire in the grate roared, spreading its warmth around the room. It was late in the May, but still the cold persisted, for it would hold on until early July, and perhaps even longer.
Sipping my wine, I drew him into conversation as a dutiful wife should, listening to his talk about his businesses and his taxes, neither caring nor understanding. As the intricacies of his speech faded from my ears, until all I could hear was the low hum of his voice, I permitted my mind to wander, carefully, and probe into my past, evoking the memories that did not hurt.
My mother was good and kind, and it was from her that I drew all my strength, and her rules only that I obeyed devotedly. She was a Welshwoman to the bone, proud and unfailingly loyal. She taught me all the stories I know about the people that were my ancestors, and who fought for me that I might live a happy life. She, too, had married young, only fourteen, but to a man she loved. He was the son of her father's best friend, and only her undying commitment to him could persuade her father to permit their marriage. She had been indulged as a child, and now as a wife that did not stop. She went from being one man's pride and joy to being another's.
The house and home that they raised together became one of the most admired in the town. Three babies she bore and three died before she was gifted with me. Four more followed; two girls and two boys. There she thought would be the end of her child-bearing days, but to her surprise, five years ago she was blessed with another, a firm fat boy-child who came screaming into the world and continued on that determined path for quite some time.
It was then that my parents received an offer for my hand. My father was disinclined to accept, knowing nothing about the man who admired me, for he was from the north, and as such did not mingle in the circles our family moved in. It was only my mother's advice that he looked a respectable man and he was willing to stay in the town for three months to prove his worth that swayed his mind.
My father, like my mother, was devoutly Welsh. His grandfather and great-grandfather had fought alongside the man championing the Welsh cause in the battles against English rule. Owain Glyndŵr was a name oft spoken in the household, and spoken with pride.
Whenever I remember my childhood memories of him, they always feature him as a tower, strong and never to be broken. He was a tall man, strong, with black hair and black eyes; those features he passed to me. I idolised my father in a way I did not my mother.
I was his first born, and though he wanted a boy as every man wanted a boy, he loved me more than he loved any of his other children. I was the apple of his eye and he adored me. He gave me everything I wanted and never raised his voice or his hand to me. He swore to my mother that no man would ever be good enough for me, no man would ever be able to understand me the way he could, and as such I would be forbade to marry until he had found a man suitable for me.
My mother was more practical, and whilst she knew that I should marry for love as she did, she felt that one marriage was just as good as the rest, and when a proposal came, so soon after the birth of the unexpected child, she immediately thought it was a gift from God. That a man, so loving and attentive, should come along when she was too busy with a new baby to teach me much of what I needed to know, seemed too good to pass upon.
And so, I was wed in the church of my hometown, and the morning after, I was placed into a carriage with my maid and my husband, waved to, kissed, and sent off to the north with smiles, tears, and fond farewells.
- - - - -
The next morning I sent word to the stables after my husband had left for the day, ensuring my horse would be saddled and waiting for me to ride.
The mare I now owned was a stubborn creature, plump and lazy, and inclined to eat too much food. She was a pretty enough horse, flaxen mane and wide eyes, but she did not satisfy me. At home, indulged by my father, I possessed a magnificent stallion, wild as if he had not been broken, prone to rearing and galloping as if wolves were snapping at his heels, but I adored him. I had ever been an excellent rider, and as such my stallion fit me perfectly. I hated to ride sideways, as was the ladylike was of doing things, and my father was persuaded that I gained better control having my legs either side of the horse. I took plenty of tumbles before my horse and I gained a mutual respect and understanding that whatever he did to unseat me I would remain there, clinging on with sometimes little more than sheer determination, and so a whole new way of riding was born.
But, my mare was too slow and too quiet for me. I hated riding her, and I hated riding with both legs on one side, but my husband was of the opinion that a lady should ride like a lady, if she should ride at all. He had tried to stop my riding, but I threw such a temper that he gave in eventually. I could no longer complain, for he could just as soon take the horse back again. I detested his control over my activities but at least I had a horse.
Spreading my skirts over my legs I turned my horse towards the castle gates and rode her towards the town below. The castle was set apart from the town, perched on a cliff-edge, while the town was in a hollow, surrounded on three sides by solid walls and on the other by the tidal river. The gates were opened early in the morning, and shut late at night, and anyone who wished to enter had to state their business to the guards if the gate blocked their way.
I slowed my mare and tethered her to one of the posts on the beach, leaving her to the stroking hands of the town's children. Lifting my dress slightly, I navigated the wet pebbles and made my way towards one of my fishermen friends.
"Hello, Aneurin," I said with a smile.
He turned to me and returned my greeting, dipping his head in respect. "How are you this fine day, Miss Rhiannon?" he said.
I smiled and shrugged. "No better and no worse than yesterday or tomorrow."
He furrowed his eyebrows at me and made no reply.
I stood and watched him tying up his nets for a while, enquiring after his wife, who was sick, and his three children. The eldest child, a boy of twelve, had already learnt his trade and accompanied him on his day's work.
As we talked, I gazed around the river, watching as a group of men with complicated looking systems of ropes and wooden frames lowered large slabs of stone carefully into the wet sand. This year, for the first time since the town began, there was going to be a harbour built into the river to try and keep some of the water so the larger vessels that moored in our river could stay afloat and not become wedged into the sucking wet sand in the deepest part of the river.
A large shape caught my eye, and I fixed my gaze upon it. It was a vast ship, with three majestic sails and a proud figurehead I could almost make out from my position on the beach. I wondered about it for a few moments, and then worried that the sailors were not looking to leave too soon as their ship, being bigger than most of the ones that moor here, even the trading vessels, was firmly entrenched in the thick, mud-like sand on the riverbed.
"Ah," came Aneurin's voice, breaking into my thoughts, "you have finally noticed. I had wondered whether that was the real reason you came down to the river today."
I shook my head. "No, I had no idea it was here. When did it arrive?" I enquired.
"Last night, I do believe. I'm not sure of the time, only it was late and already dark. There has been word about the town that Mr. Jones was not too happy at discovering someone had snuck in to his river under cover of darkness, with no noise about their arrival made. He thinks they were trying to evade paying the fees, and so as soon as he spotted them he rowed over to them and shouted up that they must pay or be put in the gaols."
I laughed. Mr. Jones, the harbour master, was a fearsome man, with seemingly no first name, no respect for gentility and a dislike of any company save his own. He rigidly stuck to the rules of his job, and no-one left the river without paying their taxes for mooring here. If they tried to, he threatened to have them locked away for all eternity, though he had never once succeeded.
"Well," I said, "you certainly have my curiosity aroused. Pray, do tell more."
"Word has it—and you understand I don't pay no mind to the idle gossip of the town's women; word has it that the crew are made up of men from many different countries, and the captain himself is English. It is a trader, but besides food, spices and cloths, it carries many other items of value. I am not inclined to believe the rumours that it has valuable jewels and such like aboard, because how can they have proof of that?"
"Hmm," I said quietly.
"You want to ask Mr. Jones, miss, for he knows more about the vessels that moor here than anyone else."
"Yes, I will, thank you." I turned away and walked back up the pebbled beach towards the harbour master's house.
Mr. Jones was a tall man, with grey streaks the colour of iron in his tufty brown hair. He had the weathered brown face of a man who has spent all his days and all his nights at sea, and a temper to rival even the fiercest tempest.
He bowed when I greeted him, but it was stiff and lasted for a shorter time than it takes to blink. "Good morning, my lady. What may I do for you?"
"I wish to find out more about that ship over there," I said, indicating the fine vessel listing to one side in the middle of the river.
He scowled at me, his face twisting up into a grimace. "I know no more than the idle gossips that fill this town," he said in a frog's voice, his throat croaking.
His tone suggested he wouldn't tell me anything even if I was the Queen of England. His abhorrence for women was barely concealed. I twisted a coin out of my sleeve and pressed it into his lined palm. "Will this enable you to unlock your memories of that ship?"
His eyes narrowed and his bushy eyebrows knotted in the middle, but he replied grudgingly. "The captain speaks English only, and he seemed not to like my way of speaking his infernal language. He thinks they will be staying for only a few days, but if the town is to his liking they may remain for longer. He seems like a nasty piece of work. I don't trust men like him." He frowned at me. "If you're a-wanting to speak with him he'll be in the market tomorrow. Seemed mighty interested in what we sell here."
I left him muttering angrily to himself and resolved to find the captain tomorrow. It wasn't often my curiosity was aroused, but today I was quite eager to discover more about this peculiar ship.
I rode my mare around the mountain paths on the lower slopes until I saw my husband's carriage making its way along the Sychnant Pass. By the time he arrived home, I was freshly dressed and smiling beatifically at him as we sat beside the fire in the tiny room where we spent most of our time. He was reading and I was trying to embroider like a lady, and not punctuate each stab of the needle with curses.
After dinner, he informed me that he had a surprise for me, and if I would only wait in my room until he sent for me then I would be especially pleased with it. So, I went upstairs and sat by the window, watching the world go past without me, not particularly caring what my surprise may be.