(A historical tale, in which dreadful liberties have been taken with historical fact and anachronisms abound — makes a change from clichés.)
Ever since the days of Arth-ur (The Bear), now legend, of a mysterious Brythonic leader or king, who held the Saxon invasion at bay for some fifty years, there has been a resentment of the invading ‘Saison’ by the native Cymry.
The kingdom of Gwent, in south east Wales, is one of the many sites suggested for the location of Camelot, the legendary base of our British hero, the British–in this context being the Romano-British who were mainly the Celtic peoples who lived in these islands before they were overrun by the Angles, Jutes and Saxons; and who were then confined to areas of Wales, Cornwall and southern Scotland–Edinburgh, being a British settlement long before the coming of the Scots.
Our story takes place in the years a hundred or more after the victories of Arth-ur, who was already a legend. The kingdom of Gwent, its king defeated by the Saxon Offa, survives only as a vassal state, under the nominal leadership of Queen Gwenllian, widow of Cynon (The Hound), and her surviving son Gwydion.
“My, Lady Gwenllian, it is a pleasure to visit our vassal kingdoms, and be received so regally. Your food and entertainment, we approved of most gladly.”
“My Lord Offa,” the queen curtseyed, “is too kind.”
“It is the least we can do to moderate the hurt still felt by yourself for your fallen husband and son. They were brave men and died like men, with a sword in their hands.”
“My Lord Offa, is kind to show us respect for our kin.”
“Where is your younger son? Gwydion, isn’t it?”
“At his books, my lord.”
“At his books, where did books get your husband? What is he to become, one of those religious fools, proclaiming their faith through ridiculous hair cuts?”
“My Lord, he is a delicate child unable to learn the ways of a warrior, but his nimble mind copes with his books and his poetry. My Lord, must remember that we Cymro have a long history of the bardic poets.”
“I’m sure that had your husband recited poetry, we would have fled the field, leaving him victorious. Dear lady, please do not argue with your conquerors, it displeases us.”
“I apologise unconditionally if I have caused offence to the noble lord. None was intended.”
“If we had suspected there was, we would have dealt with it much more severely than with a minor reprimand. We must adjourn to our bed, we thank you once again for your hospitality and wish you good even.”
“Good night, my lord.” Gwenllian once again curtseyed to the man she resented enough to kill, given the chance. The murderer of her husband and elder child, she would never forgive him, but for the moment, she had to keep the peace and protect her surviving son and look out for her people, many of whom had been killed in the earlier battles. There was a temporary peace, but the price she paid was crippling her with resentment of the fat pig, to whom she had to toadie. Were it not for the certain death of her son as a consequence, she’d have poisoned the pig already.
“Mother, why do you accept the pig in this household. I’ll bet he was born in a sty and his mother was a sow, unlike my own beautiful goddess.”
“Gwydion, it would give me great pleasure to destroy the fat foreigner who plunders our lands, but we have neither the resources nor the belief to overthrow the looter and his hordes.”
“I shall, one day. One day, I shall revenge my father and my brother, Gruffydd.”
“One day, my son, you will commit your life to God and our Lord Jesus.”
“After I have freed our lands of the tyrannical Saison, mother.”
“Sleep well, my son, your are but twelve summers old, I should wait and see what God proposes for you before you get too set on a futile cause. You mind to your books and writing, and keep the faith which this heathen monster would have us refute.”
“Never, Mother. I shall die before I recant my faith.”
“Hush, my little man, walls have ears and there are spies everywhere. So keep your sedition, to yourself.”
“Mater, how long does the lizard remain gorging himself on our kitchen?”
“Another day and night, my sweet boy, now get thee to sleep and rest your eyes and body.” She kissed him and tucked him into his bed unaware that a plan was fermenting in his brain which would change all their lives, and very nearly cost him his.
The next morning, Gwydion rose early, apart from the servants tending the cooking fires and those making bread, no one else stirred. His plan was audacious, and he might just get away with it.
Gwydion’s dark hair was long and thick and normally tied back off his face. He possessed a comb and brush but rarely used them, they were expensive and besides he didn’t have time unless his mother chided him about his appearance. He was small and lightly built, no use for swinging a sword or axe, but he was fast and lithe, and quite able to use a knife.
He found what he wanted from the laundry, one of the servant’s outfits, a simple woollen dress and linen underslip. He snatched them and rushed back to his own chamber where he tried them on. A little loose, but they would do with a girdle, from which he could hang his knife. In some ways, the knife was a mistake, a sign of a freeman or woman, yet he was pretending to be serf or bonded serving wench.
He untied his hair and brushed it in a centre parting, then tied the cloth around it, his disguise was complete. His heart was hammering in his chest as he made his way through the passages to the guest’s rooms. He carried a jug of wine, supposedly for the unwelcome guest to drink.
In those days, water was often contaminated and therefore not potable. The higher orders drank wine, the lower orders, beer, and children, small beer–made from the reused mashings of the strong beer.
He curtseyed clumsily to the guard outside the king’s quarters. “Wine for your master,” he said in his unbroken voice. The guard examined the jug, and nodded.
“Bring me some beer, wench, and grow yourself some tits. They say a good seeing to by a well endowed warrior helps them to grow. You know where to come.” He pinched Gwydion’s buttock as he passed.
“I’d rather lie with a donkey than a pig like you,” the Welsh prince snapped back.
“Well, the donkey and me have something in common, you Welsh slut.”
“Hush, your slander, do you want to wake your master and have him cut off both your ears and your balls?”
The parting shot seemed to put the guard in his place, and he went back to scratching his groin, moving his lice around for their morning exercise, thought Gwydion, as he entered the guest chamber.
The room was dark and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. He could smell the stench of unwashed male body odour. Even his brother didn’t smell that much and he was loth to wash unless the queen had chased him. Six years his elder, Gruffydd was a tall and handsome young man, his life cut short not in battle, but by execution after the affray.
Gwydion felt a mixture of emotions, sadness and loss of his father and brother and anger, resentment and hate. Here before him, snoring like a pig in shit, was the object of his feelings. Gwydion had never killed anything bigger than a wasp. He stood and froze at the prospect of the murder he had in his heart.
His ears pounded as his heart seemed to want to break through his chest and the flimsy dress he wore. Whatever happened now, he was in trouble, unless he left the jug and escaped. He put the jug down on a small table trying to minimise any noise.
He steeled himself for what he needed to do to avenge his family and reclaim his kingdom. He turned and faced the sleeping form, he slowly and silently drew the dagger from his girdle and gripped it tightly. Now, he would get just one strike before the sleeper awoke and cried out. It needed to be a good strike, in the heart or throat.
He crept closer and kicked a goblet he couldn’t see in the dark. Its clatter seemed to sound like the curfew bell, but the sleeper snorted and lay still. He waited for what seemed a lifetime, then realising time was getting late, he launched himself at his hated enemy.
His loud exhalation proved his undoing, as he plunged the knife towards its quarry, the sleeper grasped his hand and pulled him effortlessly over the bed, turning the tables on him in a moment.
“Guard,” he shouted, holding the boy by the throat and wrists. There was a clatter of footsteps as the guard rushed into the chambers. “Open the shutters, let’s see what we have here.”
A second soldier arrived and Gwydion was seized by him, he tried to wriggle free, but the king slapped him hard across the face, making his eyes water although he tried desperately not to cry. He was terrified and he had failed.
“Well, wench. Your mistress will pay dearly for this and so will you–with your life. Treason means you will dance for us on the end of a rope, for all your stupid countrymen to see. You should have stuck to your sewing.”
The portly, but very strong man, still clad in his nightshirt and still smelling like a horse’s armpit, spied the dagger lying on the floor. Its bejewelled handle flashed as he picked it up.
“Where did you get this? This is not the tool of a serving girl. Did your mistress put you up to this?”
Gwydion, now weeping silently, shook his head.
“From whom did you steal this?” Questioned the king.
Gwydion new he was dead, he now had to try and save his mother. “No one, my lord.”
“Clearly this isn’t true, wench. No serving girl would ever afford such a piece. Howso, you do?”
“It is mine, sir.”
“It is yours, ha, no matter, a few hours with my jailer will wrest the truth from you. Take her away, and send for her mistress, I shall interrogate her myself.”
Gwydion struggled and cried as they took him through the door, “My mother knows nothing of this, this was entirely my scheme.”
“What? What does she say, bring her back this instant.”
The helpless prince was dragged back into the chamber, the king now wore a robe over his nightshirt.
“Who are you?” King Offa, held him across the cheeks, squeezing unnecessarily hard. “Your mother knows nothing? The queen is your mother, you must be her whelp, the girlish Gwydion. Ha, how nice that you should realise your worth as that of a serving wench, at least your brother died fighting for his lands, joining his father in the otherworld. You fill your noble kin with shame, dressed like some slut from the kitchen. You will die in those clothes, they become you.”
“If I had succeeded, my land would have been free of your tyranny, even if I had died in the attempt, my countrymen would know what I had done and turned my exploits into poetry and songs.”
“Well they can now, I long to hear how they sing your praises, your feminine looks and body and clumsy feet, trying to stab a king with a knife barely big enough to kill a sparrow. Take her away and send for her mother.”
The words still stinging in his ears, Gwydion was led away by two soldiers both of whom were twice his size. He was unceremoniously locked in a cellar. He looked around the gloomy and dank room, knowing there was no escape, but at least he had tried. Despite his clothes, he would die like a king, with dignity. This he resolved to do, just before he vomited with fright.
“My lord, you sent for me?” Queen Gwenllian entered the formal reception room of the palace.
“Yes, Milady, I wonder if you could explain why a serving wench was found with this in her hand, in my chamber?” He showed her the ornate dagger.
“Oh, Gwydion,” she shrieked, “my lord, where is he? What have you done with him?”
“I think it is more a case of what she wanted to do to me.”
“She? My lord, who is this wench of whom you speak?”
“Why, milady, the one you sent to kill me as I slept.”
“I did no such thing. I and my son, know nothing of this affair.”
“Oh but I think you do, bring up the wench, let her mother see her.”
Gwenllian collapsed into a chair unsure of what was happening, she had been rudely interrupted in her toilet and what was this about Gwydion and a serving girl? Her head was spinning. She needed this crisis like a forest fire, what was going on, why didn’t these Saxons leave her and her son in peace?
The sound of scuffling feet drew her attention to the small female figure being dragged into the room and cast down before her and King Offa. “What is your name, wench?”
His hands tied behind him, he struggled to his knees and stared at the ground. He was sobbing, and his hair fell over his face.
“Gwydion, is that you?” asked his mother rushing forward to him, but she was held back by a guard. “Unhand me you barbarian,” she spat at the guard but he held her firmly.
“Please stay away from the prisoner, even if it is your daughter.”
“My daughter, that is my son, why is he dressed like a serving maid?”
“We think it becomes him, although a youth’s name seems to ill befit her. However, she shall wear those clothes for the few hours she has yet to live, so she may die like the treacherous slut she is.”
Gwenllian, still restrained by the guard, broke down and wept, “What have you done to my son?”
“Apart from intercepting her on her murderous mission, and confiscating her deadly plaything, we have done nothing. Tell your mother, slut, that neither we nor our men caused her to be attired in such a fitting manner. Go on, tell her.”
“Mother, it’s true. I acted alone, I stole the clothes of one of the serving girls so I could effect an entry to kill Lord Offa.”
“My lord, my gracious king, you have already taken the lives of my husband and my son, please spare the life of this my only child. Please I beg of you. If one needs to pay the forfeit with their life, then take mine, but spare my child.”
“Those who carry treason like some foul poison must pay the price. She must die and you dear lady, were we to accept your offer to die in place of a serving girl, would create riots and ill feeling amongst your peasants. We are sick of defeating them in battle, they should be paying us tithes not fighting us.”
“Please, my lord, take what you will but spare my son.” The queen threw herself on the floor before the king, sobbing at his feet.
“Take what we will if we spare the wench’s life. And you will honour that choice?”
“Yes, my lord, I swear.”
“Very well, we shall spare her life…”
“My lord, is generous and merciful.”
“Hush, dear lady, you have not heard all that we will exact. Take her away and unman her. If she lives, be it in the hands of your god…”
The queen screamed and fell back on the floor.
“Silence. From henceforth, Prince Gwydion is no more, she shall be a maid, who shall care for her mother. That is our ruling, see it done.” He motioned to the guards and the prisoner was dragged away, silenced by the shock of the king's decree. He’d rather have died, maybe he would, if he was lucky. The queen was helped away by her close servants back to her chambers, where she was effectively under house arrest. She took to her bed wanting to die as she was sure her son would within a short time. At least they would all be together in the heaven she believed was her reward for a just and pious life.
Down below, the hapless youth was stripped and bound to a table. The king watched as his physician performed the operation, with the victim’s own blade. Offa felt it uniquely fitting and just that she should be punished by her own weapon.
“Just the balls, my lord?” asked the physician.
“No Cedric, take the lot, we want no one to recognise her as a man again.”
“I only asked my lord, because she may die from blood loss.”
“If that is so, then that is so, but do your best, we want her to live a long time and embarrass and humiliate her countrymen, letting them know what awaits those who offend us.”
It is suggested that Gwydion’s scream was heard twelve miles away in Wysg, certainly his mother heard it and fell into a faint, hoping they would both die quickly.
As the knife slashed and removed his generative organs, the surgeon stitched the loose bag of bleeding skin, into a pair of labia, then packed the wound with comfrey and linen, applying a tight linen bandage to help control bleeding. The youth, was still unconscious, having passed out from the initial incision.
Over the next few days, the physician visited the injured youth and supervised the changing of dressings. The boy was given an infusion of willow to help ease his pain, although, nothing would remove his shame and he fell into a deep depression. His mother was similarly affected.
The queen had no physician, he had died on the battlefield, and thus the wise woman, sometimes accused of sorcery and witchcraft–indeed, she was an adherent of the old religion, was summoned by the chamberlain of the palace and instructed to save both lives.
She was sworn to secrecy and informed of the situation. She examined the boy first and gasped first in horror, then in awe at the skill of the king’s physician. She removed the stitches and redressed the wound, which was saturated in urine, with more comfrey and a herbal concoction of her own.
“There, my lady, it will smart a little at first,” she cooed to the semiconscious boy. “Now drink this, it will make you feel much better,” and she helped him sip the infusion of willow and St John’s wort.
“Will it help me die?” asked the youth, his voice weak.
“My lady, for that is what you are now, you must grow strong, it is your duty to help your mother, the queen who is gravely ill.”
“How can I help, I who have brought shame upon her and my family?”
“She needs you to grow strong and healthy.”
“How can I do that, I am unmanned, I am a nothing, not even a eunuch.”
“A prick and balls aren’t everything, I’m told you have a quick mind and book learning.”
“Some use it’s been so far, if this is its reward.”
“Your mother and your country need those skills. Help her to make this land strong and prosperous again because only then can you reclaim it as its queen.”
“A queen? Ha, I’d be a laughing stock, who would follow me, Gwydion the prickless.”
“It would not have been easy to be a king, it will be even harder to become its queen, but its queen you shall be, and a warrior one who will drive the invaders back over their own borders.”
“You jest with me, old crone, be gone and let me die in peace.”
“I have the gift of seeing the future, your destiny is known to me.”
“My destiny is to die of shame, lying in my own piss and blood. Gwydion the unmanned.”
“You whine like a girl, my lady, you should fight like the princess you are, not some downtrodden serving wench. Where is the hwyl, the spirit of this once proud tribe of Silures; they who coped with occupation of Rome and regained their freedom after many many years. Where is that? Show me you are of royal blood, my lady, not some peasant girl from the village. Let this palace of Caerllion sound again to the greatness of a Silurian queen.”
“Of course, Queen Gwydion, has quite a ring to it don’t you think? A ring of the absurd and hopeless. Now let me die.”
“If all that concerns you is a name, then let us baptise you again.” The old lady Meggan celfyddydau du,* collected some water and after holding it up to the moonlight and muttering an incantation in a language even Gwydion didn’t recognise, she bathed him in the potion.
“What are you doing, Meggan?”
“I am baptising you in the manner of the moon goddess, Arianrhod, for you will become an incarnation of her and through her become a great and wise queen.”
“You old fool, have you taken leave of your senses?”
“Hush, my lady, and see what happens.” She blew out the lamp and drew back the shutters on the window. They watched the silvery light of the moon shine in through the window and creep towards Gwydion, his still damp body felt cool and covered in goosepimples, as the light crept up upon him from his feet.
As it reached his groin he felt a coolness there, the fire of injury and or infection seemed to ease and the pain vanished. He gasped and trembled. The moonlight continued to engulf his body, finally moving up to his face and head. He was temporarily blinded and thought he could see the shape of a tall figure standing before him, then it vanished as the old woman spoke.
“Goddess Arianrhod, come save these your people, help this young woman, this princess, gain the strength and wisdom she needs to reclaim her throne and her lands from the Saxon tyrants. Bestow upon her your strength and your name, Arianrhod, queen and goddess of the moon and stars.”
“What is happening to me?” called Gwydion, “I feel very strange.” He closed his eyes and fell into a stupor.
Meggan, realising her advantage of his trance acted quickly, “Arianrhod, for that is now your name, you are a princess of the house of Caerllion, you will support and serve your mother, Queen Gwenllian, until the day when you take her place as a great and noble warrior queen. This is your destiny. Do you hear me?”
“Yes,” answered the entranced youth.
“What is your name?”
“What is your destiny?”
“To become a great and noble warrior queen and reclaim these lands for my people by driving out the Saison.”
“Awake, my lady, Arianrhod, come with me and help encourage the recovery of your mother.”
She helped Arianrhod rise and dress in a gown and robe. Then leaning on the old lady’s arm, the princess walked slowly towards her mother’s chambers. After some initial challenges, they were allowed to enter, whereupon, Arianrhod whimpered in panic when she saw her mother, lying gravely ill in her bed.
“Mother, I am here, please come back to me, I need your love and counsel.”
Gwenllian opened her eyes and stared at her child, “Gwydion? Is that you?”
“No longer, Mother, I am the princess Arianrhod, the daughter of a wondrous queen and beautiful mother. Help us to save this land from the tyrannical Sais.”
“Gwydion, I think we are both dead, why do you call yourself by the name of the moon goddess?”
“This is now my name, Mother, and I will be queen after you.”
The queen looked at Meggan, “Is this your doing?”
“My lady, I have saved your daughter’s life and helped her see her purpose. It is her first duty to do the same for you. You can delay her by passing in your shame and sorrow, or you can enable her by growing strong again. She needs you more as a daughter than he ever did as a son. Can you turn your back upon her, in this her hour of need?”
Tears ran down the pallid cheeks of the queen, “No, I cannot. Arianrhod, my daughter, receive my blessing.” The two embraced and within days, the queen had recovered enough to be able to walk about and start the long process of teaching her daughter the arts of being a princess and a woman; the latter helped by Meggan’s infusions of herbs, which enabled the young princess to develop the body of a healthy young woman.
Brenhines = queen
Celfyddydau du = black or dark arts.
Hwyl = spirit, esprit de corps.
Saison = English/Saxons.
Cymro/Cymru =The people/Welsh.
Thanks to milady, Gabi Bunton, for her express editing and historical advice (or was it hysterical?).
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