I am a coward.
Were I not, I would have died this morning on the Tor with the others, but I fled and hid. The abbot told me I should be gone to Wales by now, but I hadn’t the courage even for that. My father spoke truer than he knew. He said I would never amount to anything as a monk, and he was right.
I close my eyes and mutter the prayers of protection for the dying.
. . . From the ancient enemy: free and defend their souls, O Lord. . . .
Across the moors three gallows loom atop the Tor. Three bodies swing in the cold November dawn. I draw my cloak around me. The bundle that is my treasure presses against my side, safely wrapped in the wool of my old habit. I try again to pray, but it is the warm baritone of the priest in my old parish in Wales that fills my mind. More than a year has passed since he chanted those prayers for my mother. The pain still runs deep, and it is for her that I weep.
. . . From the ancient enemy: free and defend her soul, O Lord. . . .
The voice of Father David rose and fell. My mother stirred faintly and drew a ragged breath, her once golden hair strewn on the pillow like so much lifeless straw.
. . . From the stratagems and snares of the Devil: free and defend her soul, O Lord. . . .
I knelt in the rushes on the floor, joining my voice with the priest’s in the refrain.
“Free and defend her soul, O Lord.”
It numbed my grief-stricken mind like pounding rain. If I had not left her that night. . . . If only I had raised a hand to stop him. Incense masked the odors of blood and illness, and my stomach felt empty and hollow, as indeed it was. The light of a single candle flickered on the gold threads of the Holy Grail in the tapestry my mother had hung against the half-timbered walls of her room. She had woven it with her own hands and brought it to this house some twenty-three years ago when her father arranged her marriage to Sir Stephen Hay.
. . . From the onslaught of malignant spirits: free and defend her soul, O Lord. . . .
The murmuring voice of the priest gave little comfort.
. . . From fear of enemies: free and defend her soul, O Lord. . . .
At least in death she would be free of him—Sir Stephen, who showed more tenderness for his horses and hounds than for her who managed his household and bore him sons. Seventeen years ago when I was born and nearly killed her in the birthing, the doctors had said she’d stand no more children. He had other women. The tales of his lechery surpassed even those of his father.
But he came to her one winter’s night when the snow lay on the high hills. I was huddled close to the warm brazier on my stool, leaning against her knees while I read to her from a romance of King Arthur. Llwyd, the harper, strummed lightly on his instrument.
“King Arthur lies at Glastonbury, Collen,” my mother reminded me, twirling the end of her long braid, as golden then as when she was young. She used the Welsh form of my name. The soft dentals sounded so much gentler than my father’s clipped English “Colin.”
A cold rain had fallen all day and trapped him indoors. His step sounded on the stair, and more than once he lurched unsteadily against the staircase wall.
“A man has a right to his wife,” he declared as he entered, thrusting his grizzled head forward on his thick neck in challenge.
“My lord.” My mother lowered her eyes submissively, but not before I caught the startled fear of a cornered rabbit in them. Her hands trembled, and she clasped them tightly in her lap.
“Father!” I scrambled to my feet. “What do you intend?”
He laughed coarsely. “Time you learned, boy! You’re near a man, or would be if you didn’t spend your days with women and harpers.” He sneered at Llwyd, grasped my mother, and dragged her to her feet.
She gave a little cry before he smothered it with his mouth on hers. Brigit, the waiting woman who had nursed my mother from infancy and me after her, backed into the shadows of a corner, clasping her embroidery to her breast.
I started forward, but Llwyd gripped my shoulder and jerked me back.
“Sir Stephen,” he began, “I hardly think . . . The lady is delicate.”
Sir Stephen thrust her away from him and turned smoldering eyes on us. “Don’t think I don’t know what goes on between you two.” He took a menacing step in our direction, and I shrank against Llwyd’s thin form. “Your looks, your touch, your ingratiating ways.”
The minstrel paled, but stood his ground. “I assure you, Sir Stephen, nothing improper has ever . . .” My father drew back his beefy hand to strike.
“Llwyd . . .” My mother’s voice was quiet but insistent. Even my father paused. “Best leave us now. I shall not be needing you any more this evening, Brigit. Collen, come kiss me good night. You should have been in bed long ago.” Whatever her fears, she mastered them. She sat on the bed where my father had thrown her. Her face was void of color, but her voice lost none of its commanding dignity.
She raised her chin in the proud tilt I knew so well, and I could not cross her.
Llwyd’s body stiffened behind me as he hesitated. His fingers dug into my shoulder. The moment passed; he would not cross her either. “Yes, my lady. Sir Stephen, good night.” He pushed me forward, and I bent and kissed my mother. Her lips felt warm although the fingers that touched my hand were icy cold.
“Good night, Collen.”
I swallowed hard and found voice to form the words. “Good night, Mother.”
That was near the Feast of Saint Valentine, when the nights were long and cold. Summer had come and gone. Now it was autumn—too soon for the babe, too late for the woman who bore her. The midwife carried away the stillborn girl early that morning, and for a few hours we thought my mother might live. Now it was clear she would not.
Sir Stephen had gone riding with his hounds before his infant daughter’s body was cold. I thought Brigit, the waiting woman, might try to defend him with some pap about his way of dealing with sorrow. But even she, faithful servant that she was, pursed her lips in silent rage.
My father cared nothing for the tiny child that had never drawn breath, as he cared nothing for me. He preferred my brother Walter’s tolerance for ale and skill with a sword to my love of books and way with a pen. It was good that Walter was the heir, for I wasn’t man enough for their company and never would be no matter how much I tried.
Pater Noster, qui es in caelis. . .
The litany ended, and we recited the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” My lady mother no longer stirred. Although her breast still moved in faint, feeble breaths, she was past hearing.
The prayers ended, Brigit saw the priest to the door. She was weeping. Walter’s voice echoed through the hall below. My elder brother by five years, he had come with the others of the household to pay their respects and to hear my mother’s last wishes. I saw the nervous twitching of his powerful hands and the cold sweat on his brow. He held back from kissing her as though her very touch would bleed his life away. For all his strength and manliness, he had a horror of death. He escaped to the hall as soon as he might. But unlike our father he fled no farther, for he did love her.
My eyelids felt strangely heavy. Twice I jerked my head from where it had fallen forward against the coverlet. If I slept, I might lose her forever. But the room was close and airless, and my consciousness drifted.
I seemed to be in a cavern, its passage narrow and low. The splash of falling water echoed on every side, and a stream ran at my feet. The walls ahead glimmered lacy white in the light of hidden torches. My fingers ached with cold as I braced myself against the wet walls.
The passage opened into a great hall, crowded with pillars of pure white stone. Some hung from the ceiling; some rose from the floor and some met in delicate columns, too insubstantial to hold the weight of the earth above.
Were these the gates of purgatory, where I would join my mother? Or was this the enchanted kingdom of the Faire Folk of which Brigit spoke?
Far in the distance, I heard the baying of hounds and the call of a hunting horn. They echoed inside the cavern of my dream, resounding from the bowels of the earth, rising from an opening in the rock face on the far side of the hall. The clatter of hooves rang after them from the depths.
The stone beneath my feet shook, as from the din of horsemen, until the faery pillars began to sway. One dropped from the ceiling and shattered into a thousand pieces on the floor. Trembling with cold and damp and fear, I took shelter behind a curtain of stone. I chanted the names of Jesu and clutched the silver cross that hung on a ribbon around my neck. A sliver of flying stone stung my cheek. When I took my hand away, the palm was marked with blood.
Torches fell and were extinguished. The noise of the approaching hunt reverberated in the chamber. I daren’t look and I daren’t look away as a pack of phantom hounds burst from the passage. Their fur shone silvery white as the light of a full moon. Their eyes gleamed red like the coals of a dying fire.
I covered my ears to block the sound of my own scream. With a deafening rumble a rider on a horse as black as a moonless night thundered into the hall. He wore a blood-red cloak, and his head was that of a stag with a five-point brace of antlers—Gwyn ap Nudd, White Son of Night—come to seek the souls of the dead.
“No! You shall not have her!” I cried.
“Collen, awake.” It was Brigit, not the Horned King, who touched my arm. What seemed a loud cry asleep was only a dull moan awake. The faint baying of hounds sounded in the distance.
Brigit brushed aside the heavy cloth that hung over the leaded glass of the window and looked into the darkness. “Your father is returning.”
She turned and patted my mother’s damp face with a soft cloth. “It will not be long now.”
Indeed, the sound of the lady’s breathing had changed. There were long pauses between each labored breath. I knelt by her bed and took her hand. It was cool and pale blue like ice.
“Mother,” I whispered. I leaned my head against the coverlet and breathed the spicy scent of the herbs used to poultice her. “Why has he done this to you?” My mind was filled with the Horned King of my dream. My shoulders stiffened.
My earliest memory of my father was of being carried to the hall at Michaelmas. Torches cast weird shadows on the revelers, and the air was thick with wood smoke. My father must have been well into his cups. Meat juices dripped like blood from his beard and fingers. He leered at me. A pair of antlers nailed to the wall behind him appeared to my childish eyes to project from his head. I recognized him at once as Gwyn ap Nudd of Brigit’s nursery tales. I screamed in terror and struggled to escape my nursemaid’s grasp.
“What? The boy afraid?” my father roared. “Curse him for a fool and a coward!” He hurled the cup at Brigit who dropped me in the scramble. I tried to hide under the table but overturned a trestle. The boards collapsed on me, spilling their burden of wine cups and platters of food. Hounds leaped at the fallen meat. I screamed the louder until Llwyd swept me up and carried me to my mother.
Was it that day my father learned to despise me?
I was seven before Walter put me straight that our father was not god of the underworld.
“Only a mortal man,” I reminded myself, watching the life fade from my mother. “Someday he, too, will die. May no priest be near to chant the prayers, no absolution to pluck him from the flames of hell. I will not tremble before him again.”
A shudder went through my mother’s thin frame. I clasped her hand in both of mine, desperate to hold her in this world. The baying of hounds and clatter of hooves sounded in the yard. My father was home. Brigit once more dabbed the tiny drops of sweat from her lady’s face. My mother’s breath caught. Time seemed to hesitate. The air slipped out in one long sigh. Brigit began again to weep.
Not I. No tears would fall. Their flood pressed against my chest like water against a mill dam near to bursting. My father’s voice boomed through the hall, calling for wine. Had he no respect even now?
Brigit gently pried my fingers from their crushing grip on my mother’s hand. “Collen.”
I stood, shaking my head to clear the last of my dream. A knot at the back of my neck thrust tight fingers around my skull. The heat of the room stifled me. My vision was blurred and dark, and Brigit’s voice seemed to come from that far off cavern. The stag’s head loomed in my mind’s eye. He would not have her.
I stumbled against the walls of the narrow stairway and into the hall below. Walter stood by the stone fireplace, as tall and broad-chested as our father beside him. He looked up. I could see in his eyes that he guessed the news.
Sir Stephen bellowed for more wine. His words were slurred. He had obviously drunk elsewhere. A servant scurried from the buttery with a brimming cup.
Walter’s sword belt hung from the arm of his chair. The polished hilt glittered in the firelight. It angled toward me in silent invitation. I lunged for it and drew the blade awkwardly from its sheath. It felt heavy and unnatural in my hand.
“You killed her!” I gripped the sword in a ready position and took the stance I had been taught. I would never have Walter’s strength or skill, but my anger would make up for that. Sir Stephen was just reaching for the cup of wine. He stopped and stared at me, his eyes suddenly clear of drink.
Walter spoke evenly. “Colin, don’t be a fool!”
My father’s face relaxed in a smile. “No, Walter.” He laid a hand on Walter’s arm. “Perhaps your brother has found his manhood after all.” He lifted the cup in a mocking toast.
I lunged for him. He jerked back, and my thrusting sword passed between him and Walter. The cup of wine spilled red as blood down his doublet. His amusement turned to anger, and he sputtered his contempt. I shouted and thrust again. My father whirled away, but his sleeve was stained with a red that wasn’t wine.
His own sword hung on the wall behind him. Had the trestle table been put away, I would have had him before he found the weapon. I thrust the table aside with a strength I hadn’t known I possessed. One corner bashed a hole in the clay plaster of the wattle wall as the boards clattered about.
Before I could clamber over them Sir Stephen had his sword down and faced me. He carried twice my weight and had thirty years’ experience on me. All I had was the passion of my hate.
“Colin, stop this foolishness.” A tremor in Walter’s voice betrayed his fear.
I didn’t take my eyes from my father’s face. The veins in his swollen neck stood out like purple cords. His eyes showed full circles of bloodshot white around deep blue centers, and I thrust again. It was the foolish lunge of a beginner. I stumbled on one of the fallen boards and nearly fell on my father’s blade. He twisted it away and only nicked my sword arm just above the wrist.
I dropped the sword and grasped my arm to stop the spurting blood.
My father’s anger dissolved in harsh laughter. He stepped over the boards into the center of the room.
“Come, boy! If that’s all you can do, I’d better find a worthier sword master to teach you.” He beckoned me closer, his eyes merry with derision. “Or pack you off to the monks like your mother wanted.”
The reminder of my mother lying still and lifeless on the bed upstairs spurred me on. Behind my father’s head the stag antlers hung from the wall. I knew the likeness to Gwynn ap Nudd was an illusion, but I sprang like a madman from my crouch on the floor. I grasped the sword in my bloody hand and thrust it toward his middle with all my strength. The quilted fabric of his doublet resisted, then gave way as the sword slid into his side.
My father’s eyes showed startled shock. Not only had the blade found his innards, but his worthless son had done the unfathomable— what he’d never thought me man enough to do.
Gorge rose in my throat, and I thought I would surely choke. Walter eased Sir Stephen to the ground. Voices called for someone to go for the physician. The room swirled. The heat and smoke of the fire suffocated me. I let the bloodied sword slip from my hand and clatter on the floor.
There was nothing in my stomach to vomit but its own bile. I left that outside the door as I fled for sanctuary to the parish church.