By Heather Rose Jones
Elin verch Gwir Goch oed yn arglwydes ar Cantref Madruniawn wrth na bo i’w thad na meibion na brodyr. A threigylgweith dyvot yn y medwl vynet y hela. Ac wrth dilyt y cwn, hi a glywei llef gwylan. Ac edrych i fyny arni yn troi, a synnu wrthi. A’y theyrnas ymhell o’r mor. Ac yna y gelwi i gof ar y dywot y chwaervaeth Morvyth pan ymadael ar lan Caer Alarch: Os clywhych gwylan yn wylo, sef minnau yn wylo amdanat. A thrannoeth cyvodi a oruc ac ymadael a’y theulu a’y niver a’y chynghorwyr, a marchogaeth a oruc tra doeth i’r mor.
Elin, the daughter of Gwir Goch, ruled over the cantref of Madrunion, for her father had neither sons nor brothers. And one day it came into her mind to go hunting. As she was riding after the hounds, she heard the cry of a seagull and looked up to see a white bird circling overhead. She marveled at it, for her lands were far from the sea. And then she remembered what her foster-sister Morvyth had said when they parted on the shore by Caer Alarch: “When you hear a gull crying, that will be me — crying for you.” And the next morning she took leave of her household and her warriors and her counselors and rode west for the sea.
The scent in the air was just as I had remembered it: sharp and rich at the same time. I’d seen and heard the gulls for hours before my path topped the hill and the wide expanse of the Irish Sea spread out before me. The land curved to embrace it, gathering an armful of harbor to hold close and safe against winter storms. And there, where the hills rose past the outlet of the laughing river, the timbered walls and halls of Caer Alarch stood. My eyes were not for the court, but for the cluster of ships pulled out on the narrow slip of sand — ships with the look and build of Ireland. I let my horse pick her own way down to the shore and across the shifting flats where the tide had run low. Then we climbed the hills again to the eastward side where the gates of Caer Alarch opened.
The men who watched the gate I knew of old, though the last time they’d seen me I had been a wild hoyden, racing my pony along the beach and daring Morvyth to explore the treacherous caves under the cliffs. Neither one knew me at first, until I called out, “Ha, Meurig! Am I so changed?”
Then their faces split into grins, and one answered, “Elin!” He corrected himself quickly. “Lady! You’ve come in time, just barely.”
With the foreboding already resting on my shoulders, his words would have chilled my heart if they’d not been spoken with such cheer. “In time?” I asked.
“For the wedding feast,” came the answer.
I scarcely noticed as they called for a stable boy to take my horse and gave me escort into the hall. Music and laughter spilled out of the doors into the frosty air. The room within was crowded and smoky and rich with the savor of roasting meat. My eyes darted to the upper end of the hall. A strange, red-bearded man sat in the place of honor with Morvyth to one side and her parents to the other. Morvyth’s eyes met mine with an air of wild disbelief, of mingled hope and despair. I saw how she sat: as far at the end of the bench as she could from the stranger. And I saw the white pallor of her skin against the raven-darkness of her hair and the dark shadows underneath her eyes. I thought I saw her lips shape the word please. And though I could not do more than guess at what had gone before, now I knew the shape of what had called me here.
The gate-keeper, Meurig, announced my name and rank and a hush fell over the company as they turned to look—those of the court in surprised recognition, and the strangers in curiosity. Morvyth’s mother leaned close to the red-bearded stranger, whispering something to which he nodded. Morvyth’s father half-rose, staring at me in something between apprehension and guilt.
“Foster-father, how does it come that I was not invited to Morvyth’s wedding feast?” I asked boldly, seizing the advantage that I saw. “If I had known, I would have brought rich gifts. Instead I must stand here a suppliant at your gates.”
Morvyth’s father sat once more, his look doubtful and nervous. “There was no time. We did not mean to slight you . . .” His words trailed off. I had no doubt that they were true. When I was called home, he had been glad enough to see the last of me, but he would not have let that stand in the way of his own interests. Morvyth was my foster-sister; it would shame me not to bring rich gifts to her wedding. “What have you come seeking?” he asked with more confidence.
I turned from him and eyed the stranger who stared at me in bemused fascination. I have heard tales of the great Irish queens of olden times, but I think that they do not now have a place for female lords. I think that he was trying to find a word to put to me. And for my part I must judge him quickly. Could I lead him into rash promises, or would he be wary? I said to my foster-father, “I seek nothing from you today. But you, my lord,” I said, addressing the Irishman. “Today is your wedding day, and it is right for you to make gifts and grant boons to all who come before you. It is with you that my errand must be today.” And though it galled me, I knelt before him with my arms upraised.
He smiled, a little smugly, and reached over to take Morvyth’s hand in his. She allowed it — hardly noticing, for her gaze was locked on me. “So it is,” he said. “And whatever you ask, if it is legal and honorable for me to give it, you shall have it.”
I caught my lip between my teeth as I rose. It was not the promise I had hoped to get. But perhaps it would be enough. “The lady at your side,” I said, “is my foster-sister. And she is dearer to me than life itself. When you marry her and take her home to Ireland I will never see her again in this world. Give her leave to visit me in my court for a year and a day before she weds you.”
His eyes went wide and he looked over to Morvyth’s father for advice, protesting, “That is impossible.”
I pressed my advantage. “It is legal; no one can claim that it is not. And how could it not be honorable to cherish the bonds of fosterage?” I looked meaningfully at the other well-born Irish strangers in the hall. He could not dismiss that claim in the face of his own foster-brothers. “You will have her the rest of your life. Grant her to me for one year.”
I could see the thoughts flitting through his mind: an empty-handed voyage home; returning in a year to another round of whatever tears and pleas and threats it had taken to bring a white-faced Morvyth to sit stiffly by his side. But then the sweetening of her dowry he could expect for the delay and thoughts of Morvyth herself. When I saw that smoldering in his eyes my fingers curled into fists, frightening me with the force of my emotions. Was it only that Morvyth so clearly dreaded him? If she had smiled and pressed close to him would I still long to feel my hands on his throat? But at last he nodded. Indeed, what else could he do?
Morvyth’s father beckoned to me. “Come, sit beside me for the feast. There is no need to waste it. In the morning we will begin to prepare things for her visit and you can ride ahead to make ready.”
No, I would not fall into that trap. But for now I smiled and sat to share in the feast.
I remember nothing of that evening: not the taste of the meat nor the sound of the harping nor any of what I must have said to my foster-father. But when the time came for the revelry to end, Morvyth came to me and took me by the hand and led me to her bed-chamber. The room had been prepared for the bride and groom, with sweet-scented wood on the fire and soft linens on the bed and a pitcher of mead on the table in case the wine that had flowed at dinner had not been enough to calm a maiden’s fears. And while I poured a cup for each of us, she set a bar across the inside of the door.
“Will you drink?” I asked. I think she had touched nothing during the feast.
“No,” she said and then, “Yes.” She took the cup and drank a long draught before setting it aside. Then she fell into my arms and began weeping.
I stroked her long black hair and whispered, “Hush, hush,” until she stopped. “I’ve given you a year,” I said. “But at the end of it, Garvan will still be there. What will reconcile you to this marriage?”
I knew, from her look, that it had been the wrong thing to say. She pulled away from me wordlessly and went to stand by the fire. She had ever been so when something worried her and I would always need to tease and coax it out of her. But this time, when I turned her face toward mine, she opened her mouth as if to speak, then shook her head. The gull, I thought, had been easier to follow. A line from a poem came to my lips, “Hoywverch, mae’r serch a’m dwg fel ser heno? Bright girl, where tonight is the passion that drew me like a star?” The poet, lamenting a girl’s maddening silence.
Her eyes burned. “Where is the passion? If it drew you, need you ask?”
I shrugged in confusion. “It was only a poet’s fancy.”
She turned away angrily and was silent once more. I was tired from riding and tired from the long uneasy feast. Whatever her sorrow was, I would have a year to draw it out of her. I laid aside my cloak and stripped off my riding clothes, still spattered by mud.
It was the softest of sounds that made me turn: the whisper of a gown falling to the floor. She held out her hand to me and whispered, “Elin.” A fire coursed through me and burned away the mist from my mind. I stepped toward her, pulled like a fish on a hook. We had shared a bed all through our youth, but there was no mistaking this invitation for those innocent days. The smooth sheets chilled me but the touch of her skin burned. She showed me — as she had not been able to tell — why Ireland should not have her and we made of it a marriage-bed after all.
We rose early in the morning, before those with thicker heads could wake, and took short leave of her parents. I set her up before me on my horse, not because we could not have had a second for the asking, but for the joy of twining my arms around her as we rode. And when we came through the gates of my court, the household greeted her and welcomed her as my sister. Only we knew differently, though many soon guessed. We were not separated that year, by day or by night, and only the turning of the seasons cast a shadow.
When the year was done and we returned to Caer Alarch, twenty men of my retinue rode with us, with pack-horses carrying gifts and a brace of greyhounds for my foster-father. The Irish ships were on the shore once more. Morvyth drew her horse to a stop when she saw them. “I hoped he would not come,” she said.
I edged my horse next to hers and leaned close to whisper, “Never fear, he shall not have you. Do as I have said and I will arrange things.” She sighed and turned her face to kiss me.
When we came within the walls, it was the hardest thing I had ever done to lift her down from her horse and watch her walk slowly to greet her parents.
The hall was crowded that day, with my men as guests as well as the Irishmen. I waited until my foster-parents had sat, and Garvan beside them. I saw him looking around impatiently for Morvyth and came forward to address him.
“A year and a day have passed,” I said. “And I thank you for your generosity. But now that the day has come, it is not easy for me to say farewell.” I signaled to two of my men in the doorway behind me. “You have travelled far and at great expense to win a bride. It would not be right for you to return home empty-handed. But perhaps you would find these gifts sufficient to please you in her stead.” The two men came in bearing a sack the size of a small child and laid it on the floor before him, opening it to show silver vessels and horse-trappings set with blue gems and fine garments trimmed with marten.
He barely glanced at the treasures and said, “I am not to be bought. I will have my bride.”
I watched his face carefully. I could hear his men muttering around the tables. The steward frowned from his place by the door, impatient to serve the feast.
I signaled the men once more and four of them left through the door. “And you have been promised a fine dowry,” I continued, as if nothing had been said. “It should not be said that you were the worse for it if you should change your mind.” The four men returned, struggling under the weight of a sack the size of a half-grown boy. They laid it beside the other one and opened the mouth enough to show the glow of golden plates and jewelry set with red gems and garments embroidered with silk and pearls.
I could see the faintest spark of greed light his face but he looked to either side at his companions and I could tell he feared to lose face by withdrawing his claim. He paused a long moment while those around the tables whispered curiously. At the end of the hall, the cook looked in to see what the delay was and scowled furiously. Garvan shook his head. “Your gold is not brighter than her eyes. I will have my bride.”
I would have smiled too, if I had dared. He had given me the answer I needed. I turned to my men and signaled them once more. Eight of them filed out through the door. I faced him again and said, “It would not be right if you did not get a face-price, were you to give her up. There would be no shame for you if you accepted compensation.” My tongue lingered on the word “shame” and left it lying like a serpent on the floor of the hall. The eight men returned, bent double under the weight of a sack the size of a fully-grown youth. They set it beside the others and loosened the mouth of the sack enough to show the glint of the finest gold-brocaded silk.
“Enough of this,” he said impatiently. You may keep your treasures — I will have my bride.”
I stepped forward and gestured toward the sacks. “You have no interest in what I have offered? You refuse to take what you see before you and sail away in peace?”
He rose from behind the table. “You test my patience, woman.”
I needed something different from him. “You will make no claim on what is in these sacks?”
“No!” he thundered.
I think he realized, in that instant, what he had done. I pulled open the mouth of the largest sack and lifted aside the veil of gold brocade. Morvyth stepped from it and took her place at my side. “Then you have made a poor bargain,” I said. “But all here stand witness to your words.” My men closed the sacks again and bore them from the hall. I turned and bowed to my foster-father. “I have won her fairly from the man you gave her to. But this feast was prepared for him, and not for me, and I shall not begrudge him that.”
I took Morvyth by the hand and drew her from the hall. Better to ride away now than to give them time to think. What needed mending could be done later. My men had the horses ready and once more I lifted Morvyth into her saddle.
“And what if he had said yes?” Morvyth asked as we crossed the laughing river and climbed into the hills. “What if he had taken the price?”
I pulled my horse to a stop as we crested the rise and looked out over the gray sea where the gulls circled and mewed. “If he had taken the first sack, we would have won,” I said, taking her hand and kissing it. “And if he had taken the second sack, we still would have won.”
“And if he had taken the third sack?” she asked.
I smiled. “Ah, but if he were the sort to take the third sack, I would have known it by the second. And there was a different sack standing ready.” One of the gulls broke away from the others and flew east into the hills. I set my horse’s head to follow it. “It would have been a heavy price, but I would have paid it gladly.”
It was late afternoon already when we left Caer Alarch and soon it grew too dark to continue. We made our camp in Cwmnant and for the first time in a year I lay in Morvyth’s arms with no shadow between us.
When we rose and mounted in the morning, Morvyth looked back along the track and said, “I thought I heard dogs barking, and the blowing of horns.”
I listened, but there was only the stamping and snorting of our horses, eager to be gone. “Perhaps it was the sheep on the far hillside that you heard,” I said.
We rode on that day and in the evening came to the abbey of Llanddwynwen and spent the night in the guest-house there. And in the morning we mounted again and rode on. As the sun rose to noon, Morvyth paused on the rise of a hill and looked back down the valley.
“I thought I heard the neigh of a horse, and the sound of men shouting,” she said.
I motioned my band to stand silently and listened, but I heard nothing. “Cariad,” I said, “perhaps it was only the scream of the eagle circling there on the mountain, and the muttering of the river on the stones.”
She looked at me sharply. “Elin, I know the difference between a horse and an eagle, and between a sheep and a hunting horn.”
I listened again, but still I could hear nothing, and finally Morvyth shook her head and led us on.
We spent that night on the hill of Dinfran, where the bones of an ancient fortress give shelter from the wind. And in the morning we rose and mounted, and soon the walls of my court were in sight.
As we reached the gates, Morvyth said, “I can hear the sound of horses, galloping behind us on the road.”
I turned, still doubting her, and saw the dust of a troop of riders at the foot of the valley. And I knew that it must be Garvan following after us. So we went into the court and closed the thick oak doors at the gatehouse, and made ready to receive him.
When the riders came close enough to see the closed gates, and my warband standing on the walls, they slowed to a walk and came forward as if they were ordinary travelers. Morvyth’s suitor rode up to the gatehouse and roared out my name. I looked down at him from the wall-walk and said, “I am here.”
He stared up at me, squinting a little into the brightness of the sky, and said, “You have shamed me and insulted me with your trick. When have I ever done wrong to you?”
His words struck deeply and yet I could not have done otherwise. “It was not I you wronged,” I said at last, “but Morvyth. But it is true that I owe you compensation. And I will pay you your face-price, as if you were a man of my own country.” And though I had been willing to pay dearly to win Morvyth free of him, now that I had her safe I found I grudged what I offered him.
I think he had expected me to put him off. He sat and thought for a long moment, while his horse stamped and pawed impatiently. Then he said, “I will ask nothing in goods or gold, if you will give me three boons.”
My first thought was that he must think me mad or simple. My second was that I might pay him cheaply after all. “I will promise nothing unheard,” I said. “Ask your boons and then I will decide. And if you ask more than is seemly to give, you will need to content yourself with what the law allows to you.”
He nodded in agreement so quickly that I wondered, but he asked only, “Give a feast for me and my men, and let Morvyth serve me with her own hands.”
I turned his words this way and that looking for some trap, but there seemed no hidden danger. “For my part, you may have the feast,” I answered. “But it is for Morvyth to grant the other.”
She had joined me, there on the walls, and she answered in a clear, sweet voice, “Elin, now that I am the lady of your court, it is right that I should serve your guests at table. Welcome to them, and let them come in.”
And so the gates were opened and they came in, while the men of my war-band watched them like hunting hawks. My steward set the cooks to roasting meat and baking bread and by the time evening fell there was a feast prepared for them that would not shame my hospitality.
Garvan sat in the guest’s place and his men were scattered thinly among the people of my court so that they would be less inclined to make trouble. But though I watched him closely, there was nothing I could complain of, unless it were that he looked more hungrily at Morvyth than at the meat. When the food was served and Morvyth took her place at my other side, we passed the evening in pleasant conversation, as if we had been the best of companions. I thought that I had never spent a stranger evening.
When the feasting was finished and it was time to go to sleep, I rose from the table and said to him, “My steward will arrange for your beds, and in the morning you may tell me your second boon.”
“I will tell it to you now,” he said lightly. “I ask that I may spend this night lying beside Morvyth in the same bed.”
A red rage came over me, and if it had not been for Morvyth’s hand on my arm, I might have killed him where he stood. But I looked at her, and a knowing smile twitched at the corners of her mouth. So I answered instead — though the words choked in my mouth, “That is for Morvyth to grant or not as she chooses.”
And she laughed like the song of a lark and said, “What you have asked — only that and no more — I will grant you. Let a bed be prepared here in the hall, and let Elin and her men watch over us all night. And though we may lie in the same bed, if you touch me, you shall be the worse for it.”
And so I ordered it done. A mattress was brought forth and laid in the middle of the hall, with sheets and blankets on it. And when Morvyth lay on one side and Garvan on the other, I took my sword and stabbed it through the bed between them, through the linen and straw and into the earth. And I stood and watched over them, with my men ranged on either side, until sunrise lit the lintels of the door. No one within that hall slept that night.
And when morning came, and the bed was taken up and put away, I turned to the Irishman and said wearily, “If your third boon is like to your second, then you may save your breath and look to the law for your compensation.”
But he smiled amiably and said, “It is time for my men and I to depart. And for my third boon I ask only this: that when we are mounted and ready before your gates, I may have one farewell kiss from Morvyth’s lips.”
I was relieved that it was so modest a request, and so eager to see him gone that I said at once, “Yes, yes, you may have it, if that will quit you.”
But when he had left to gather his men and see about their horses, Morvyth pulled me aside angrily and said, “My lips are yours, but not to give away! How could you be such a fool?”
I was so tired I could only stare at her.
“Don’t you see what he means to do?” she asked. “Mounted, outside the gates, with all his men around. As soon as I am within his reach it will be up and away, with you left to tumble after.”
As soon as she said it, I knew it to be true. But I had promised, ill-advised though it was. “What are we to do?” I said. “I will have my men mount up and wait within the gates . . .”
She shook her head and placed a finger on my lips. “Better to outwit him than that it should come to fighting. But how?” And as she thought, a wind came up, roaring through the trees outside like the sound of the sea. And the gull cried overhead, its call echoing strangely in the hall as if in a cave. Morvyth smiled suddenly and said, “Do you remember when we first kissed?”
I thought about that night in her chamber, a year before, and frowned in confusion trying to see what she meant.
“When we were children — in the sea-caves . . .” she continued.
Then the memory came to me as if it had been yesterday. Was that when Morvyth had first known? We had been playing in the treacherous caves at the end of the point. And in following different passages, through the roaring, green-dappled dark, we had suddenly come face to face where a window pierced the cave wall between us. And, giggling, we had leaned forward to kiss through the window . . .
Morvyth’s smile was echoed on my face and I said, “I will tell the carpenter to find a gimlet.”
When the Irishmen were all mounted on their horses before the gates, Morvyth and I came to stand within the gatehouse. Garvan looked eagerly toward her and beckoned with his hand. “One kiss, and I am paid,” he said.
And at that my men swung the gates to and laid the bar across them. Morvyth stepped up on a barrel to look out through the hole, bored just where a man’s head would be when he sat a horse. And I climbed to the wall-walk and gestured down at the gate. “There you are,” I said. “You are mounted and ready before the gates, and you may have your farewell kiss.” He raged and swore and would have ridden away, but I called out to him, “You could have had cattle and silver, as the law demands, and I would have paid willingly. It was you who chose the shameful trick this time. Take your kiss, so you can call your face-price paid. You’ll get nothing more here, unless it would be greater insult.”
Then he sidled his horse up to the gate and leaned over to press Morvyth’s mouth with his own and rode away without speaking another word. We never saw him again and—if the tales tell rightly — he never again sailed across the sea to seek a bride.
In time, Morvyth forgave me for giving her kisses away, but she demanded that I pay them back many times over before that day came.
About the Author
Heather Rose Jones write stories at the intersection of history and fantasy, usually centering around women’s lives and relationships. In addition to short fiction, I’m writing an epic-length Regency-era Ruritanian historic fantasy. The Alpennia series is currently at three novels, the most recent being Mother of Souls. Outside of writing, I work as an industrial failure analyst in biotech pharmaceutical manufacturing, which is far more exciting than it may sound. And as an additional hobby, I blog about source materials for lesbian history at alpennia.com.
About the Narrator
Sarah Goleman exists, out in the world.