Efa slumped hard against the wall behind her, the rough stones tearing through the thin silk of her borrowed gown as she sank heavily to the floor. She felt it rip, felt the painful scrape of stone against flesh, but she did not care. She shut her eyes and clamped her hands to her ears, the thump of her heartbeat sounding loud in her head. If she could have hoped that this was all some sick dream, the painful tightening in her chest brought her back to reality. She knew she could not unhear what she had just heard or unsee what she just had seen. Even now she could still hear the echo of the laughter that had rung around the great hall. A cruel, abrasive laughter that turned her heart to stone.
She had sat on show at the top table, uncomfortable, and not just because of the dress not made for her. Alongside her sat a man she did not know, but who she would soon know well enough. She had sat and watched, her hands gripping each other so hard that her fingernails had left marks in her palms. Watched as Philip had stepped boldly up to face his brother, John, and her uncle, Llewellyn, the Welsh prince. He had promised her he would do it, fight for them, for their love and their future together. Pride had almost burst her chest as she had watched him stand resolute, his hand on his heart, his words spoken with conviction. But he had chosen the wrong moment, that had become obvious. Perhaps pride and anger had muddled his thinking, and if he felt as she did now, then that pride and anger would soon give way to betrayal and despair.
The moment of confrontation had not been wise. Philip should have known that John would never dare to counter Llewellyn, or to lose face in front of a room of Welsh nobles. She knew John, knew he loved his brother, but also knew that he was not brave or foolish enough to anger his powerful father-in-law. She knew Llewellyn too, all too well. He was not without feeling, but he would not be crossed when his mind was set. Politics and power won over sentimentality every time.
So she had watched as John de Braose had stepped down from the dais to meet Philip, staggering slightly from the effects of the celebratory ale, and grabbed him in what looked like a good-natured hug. Only his fingers had been white where they gripped Philip’s shoulder, his eyes blazing a warning as he spoke.
‘What do you know about love, boy? You are not man enough. You have no idea of the world and how it works.’ He glanced around the room at stunned faces, and made some other coarse remark which had the desired effect. Men banged the table and clapped each other’s shoulders and downed their drinks, and laughed as the ‘boy’ stood shaking with rage before them.
She had fled then, her face blazing and her heart breaking. How could she have kept her seat at that table, her uncle on one side and her betrothed on the other? The banquet had been set to honour her and Cynan, their upcoming marriage, but she would not be missed. It wasn’t about her, she knew that. The match was nothing more than a political move on her uncle’s part, a sop to keep the Deuheubarth princes as his allies. She was just a fortuitous asset, a nameless pawn, and he had played her. That was what had angered Philip most. Not just that his love for her and his own intention to wed her had been thwarted. But that her feelings had not been considered by her own uncle as he dictated her future. Efa in contrast saw things for how they were, outside the dream the pair had created for themselves and believed in with a passionate naïveté. After all, she was a woman, and fatherless; what more could she expect for her life than to be married off at another’s will?
For a short while, Efa had dared to believe she could have had a different future, one of her own choosing. How foolish and reckless to let herself get attached to a young man who made her laugh and shared her dreams? It had happened naturally, an affection grown out of friendship. John and his wife, her cousin Marared, Philip and herself – the four of them had been happy together at Swansea. They had no reason to believe that Llewellyn would have opposed the match either. That was until the great prince himself had arrived at Swansea, with his retinue of lesser princes, and the fantasy had been swept away.
So now she was to marry Cynan, a man old enough to be her father. She had caught him watching her, not lasciviously, rather more like he was examining a fine tapestry, or maybe a new horse. He had spoken kindly to her, his voice soft and his accent thick. But he was old. The skin of his face was roughened red, thick dark bristles spotted his sagging chin, and grey hairs grew long from his nose and ears. The only things that had hinted that he had once been a handsome man were his eyes. Surrounded by still dark lashes, the colour of his eyes was the most unusual grey-green she had ever seen. She had found herself staring, mesmerised, and perhaps that was all the interest he had been waiting for. He had asked Llewellyn for her hand then and there, and in that moment her life had changed forever.
She felt someone approach her where she crouched, leaning against the cool stone in a dark corner. Hidden, she had hoped. She heard a swish of skirts and smelled the scent of roses. Marared.
‘Efa.’ Soft hands gently pulled her own away from her ears, and kept tender yet firm hold of them. ‘Efa. Come now. You do not need to return to John’s table. They will not miss you now they are all well into their cups.’
‘I cannot leave. Philip will come for me.’
‘No, my love. He would not dare,’ she whispered firmly.
‘But I need to see him. Speak to him.’
‘Philip was angry, Efa, very angry. It was good that he left when he did. Perhaps in the morning you may see him. Chaperoned, of course. You are soon to be another man’s wife.’
Efa raised pleading eyes to her cousin’s kind face. She read understanding there, but something else too. Something she wasn’t saying.
‘Come.’ Marared pulled on her hands to help her to her feet, and placed a soothing arm around her shoulders. Her fingers must have found the rip in the silk as she did so and she let out a gasp.
‘What is it?’
‘A tear. I can’t see how bad it is, but we must get this dress off you and see if it can be mended.’ She seemed flustered. It wasn’t like Marared to be worried about a damaged gown. There were very many more at her disposal.
They started to walk towards the spiral stone stairway that led to Marared’s private solar above. As they entered the room, the noise from the hall was beginning to subside. There were noises outside too. The sounds of shouts and horses being readied. And then the sound of hooves clattering over the stones and across the drawbridge. Efa stopped dead in her tracks as she realised what it was that Marared had hidden from her. She felt her knees begin to give way, and felt Marared’s arm tighten around her shoulder.
She swallowed hard. ‘He has gone?’ she whispered.
Marared took her time answering. ‘Yes. Philip has left Swansea.’
Marared did not answer her, not until they had awkwardly negotiated the winding stairs and entered the welcoming warmth of the room with its rich tapestry-lined walls. Marared helped her sit on the bed and took her trembling hands into her own.
‘He was so angry, Efa. I was only grateful that he did not have his sword on his belt when he approached John tonight. He might have done something he would have regretted, something that would have cost him his life. You have to see that he is better away from here. Better to cool off somewhere where he can do no harm.’
‘He did not come to find me first.’ It was not a question. Efa closed her eyes. One more promise not kept, one more betrayal. ‘So be it,’ she whispered, releasing her hands from Marared’s and standing up to remove the dress as torn as her heart was. The tear in the silk could be mended, although she supposed that a scar in the fabric would always be visible. The wound in her heart would not be so easily mended, and to prevent it tearing further she swore to herself that she would never give her heart freely again.
When she woke, she felt chilled. The thick hangings of the bed had been disturbed and the space beside her was empty. If John had managed to stagger drunkenly up the stairs in the dark hours, he would have found his wife’s door locked to him. Marared had stayed, lying down beside her, stroking her hair as she would have a child, and eventually exhaustion had taken hold and Efa had slept fitfully. As she roused herself now she felt far from refreshed, the dullness of her heart and the dread of what the new day held weighing heavy on her. She sat and swung her legs over the side of the bed.
‘You are awake!’ Marared was seated at a small table positioned in front of the window embrasure. The shutters had been unfastened but not swung fully open, allowing a single stream of morning sunlight to illuminate the small private solar. It brought little warmth with it. ‘I have had Bethan bring us some victuals to break our fast. I’m in no mood to eat with my husband this morning, and I guessed you would rather stay away from the men also.’
‘If this has caused a rift between you and John, I am sorry for it.’ Efa walked over to the table and eyed the food; a fresh crusted loaf, some soft goat’s cheese and a dish of honey. It looked good but she had no appetite for it.
Marared stood and placed a hand reassuringly on her arm. ‘I will not have you worrying about John and I. I will give him a few days of the silent treatment and he will know how displeased I am with him. But you have to see that he really had no choice in it all. He could not have gone against my father, Llewellyn, most especially in front of the Welsh lords.’
‘That may be so.’ Efa reached out and tore off a piece of bread but it did not reach her mouth. Instead it was crushed mindlessly in her fingers.
‘Come, sit and try to eat. You have a long day ahead of you.’ Marared pulled a chair over to their makeshift breakfast table and guided Efa into it. She sat herself opposite and poured milk into a beaker, handing it to Efa. She was still talking, while Efa sat staring into the creamy liquid.
‘Bethan has done a good job on the green silk. I am pleased as it looked so good on you. You will wear your hair down for the ceremony, of course, but then I have a gold-threaded barrette that I want you to have to clip back your hair, and my best gossamer veil. Oh, and my miniver-lined cloak. You can have that too, to wear for the journey.’
‘It is too much, Marared. I can wear my own clothes.’
She longed for the familiarity of soft wool skirts. Not as fine as silk, but good quality enough for the ward of a Welsh prince. The silk had constrained her. It had already been let out and lengthened; she was not a slight woman, or elegant like her cousin. But her height and build had long since ceased to bother her because Philip hadn’t cared. He was not tall and handsome like his brother. They had felt happy in their ordinariness together. Love had made them beautiful to each other.
Marared was watching her intently and Efa could see her sadness reflected in her cousin’s eyes. Efa cursed herself for letting her mind go back to Philip.
‘Let me do this for you. I cannot stop this marriage, Efa, and I cannot come with you.’ Marared paused, her eyes filling. Her voice wavered. ‘Let me at least send some of my things with you.’
Efa took Marared’s hand in hers and squeezed it, allowing the corners of her mouth to lift in the semblance of a smile. She was going to find their separation hard, too. She would take Marared’s proffered gifts as welcome reminders of their love for one another.
They could not linger long over their shared sadness. There was much to be done. Efa had belongings to gather and pack. Farewells to make. Then she needed to bathe and be dressed in her finery so that she could stand with Cynan before the priest for their wedding Mass, here in Swansea’s chapel. The chapel had been a familiar place where she had prayed many times. But today she would not pray. She would mouth the words but her heart would not engage. As great as the betrayal she felt from Llewellyn and John, and now also from Philip, it was nothing compared to the pain of knowing God had neither heard nor answered her prayers.
When she finally stood ready to enter the chapel, Efa felt less like herself than she had ever felt, in her borrowed green silk with its wide brocaded sleeves, topped with the heavy miniver-lined mantle. Her hair had been brushed until the waves shone like sun-ripened corn, and a simple gold circlet crowned her head, securing Marared’s gossamer veil in place. She guessed she must look like a bride; she had even seen the odd look of admiration as she had passed through the hall still full of Llewellyn’s retinue. She should have been happy. Weren’t brides supposed to glow with happiness on their wedding day?
The day was bitterly cold, but it wasn’t the chill air that caused Efa to shiver, standing there at the threshold. The urge to rip off all the finery and run was overwhelming. But then the bulk of Llewellyn was suddenly stood beside her, and her hand taken and pulled to rest in his elbow.
‘Courage, Blodyn.’ He whispered her pet name and patted her cold hand with his rough one. She glanced up. Was it regret she read in his eyes, a soft sadness? Why then had he forced this marriage? For a moment she wondered if he was being forced to play her against his will also? No, she reminded herself. He alone wrote the rules of this particular game. He was the one intent on consolidating his power over the whole of Wales. Her back stiffened and she tried to pull her arm from his, but Llewellyn’s hand tightened. And the look he now gave her had lost its softness. He looked as if he would drag her down the aisle if she resisted further. That would not happen. She would not give him, or any of them, the satisfaction of thinking they had broken her spirit. Even if her once soft heart now lay in tiny icy shards.
Cynan had greeted her with his odd, crooked smile, as she had come to stand beside him in front of the priest. He had taken her hands in his and said the words that bound them. She had answered in turn and knelt with him for the priest’s blessing. She had taken the sacraments of the Mass and bowed her head in a sign of obeisance. But through it all she had felt nothing. Just an aching numbness that had nothing to do with the cold stone floor she stood on, or the wind whistling under the church door.
Her new husband was uttering words of love that meant nothing to him or to her. Llewellyn had been the only father figure she had ever known, and she had loved and trusted him. But he had bartered her without a second thought and would no longer hold any place in her heart. She knew Marared cared for her, but she had her husband, and remained loyal to him. John had done nothing to show that he had any concern for Efa’s feelings. Even Philip had gone, abandoning her to her fate, and that betrayal stung deepest. So here she stood at an altar that was supposed to represent divine love, and she knew the truth. She was not loved, not loved enough by any of those she had loved. It was best that she felt nothing. That would sustain her going forward.
After the ceremony, she sat at that same high table she had sat at the night before, but now the stranger sitting beside her was her wedded husband. She sat while ale was supped and steaming dishes were paraded around the room. She heard the laughter and the ribald jokes. She pasted a smile on her face and spoke one-word answers when spoken to. She ducked her head demurely and forced herself to put food into her dry mouth. Soon enough the company rose to take their leave. Only then she felt the panic, remembering that she was leaving too.
As they made their farewells she held perhaps a little too tightly to Marered’s soft hands as she saw the wince of pain cross her cousin’s fair face. And then she had cause to curse that borrowed dress again as she struggled to mount and sit side-saddle on the horse that had been provided for her. She wasn’t a natural horsewoman at the best of times and this just felt ludicrous. She perched in an ungainly fashion, struggling to keep her seat. If she could have worn her customary linen and wool, she would have sat much more comfortably astride. She would do so on the morrow, uncaring as to what impression that would give. At least her hair was now tied up out of the wind, Marared’s beautiful gold barrette securing it, tucked beneath her married woman’s wimple. She pulled up the hood of Marared’s fur-lined mantle, grateful for its warmth, and still more grateful that it hid her face. She shed no tears, but her face felt cold and tight and her head pounded as she turned her horse to ride away from Swansea.
Cynan’s home at Tregaron was some two days’ journey north. They had been joined by Llewellyn and his retinue, which would likely slow them further, for at least part of their journey. They left with the clatter of hooves and rattle of wagon wheels echoing loud. Efa determined she would not look back. A petite, dark-eyed little girl also accompanied them. She came as a companion for Efa. Not a chaperone of her own status but a poor girl from the family of one of John’s tenants. She did not seem to be leaving Swansea willingly either; her pale face was streaked with tears. With a frail frame and chestnut hair that might have been pretty if it had been touched with a comb, she looked little more than ten or eleven years old. She rode on the seat of one of the wagons, holding on white-knuckled, with a look of perpetual terror on her face.
Efa tried not to think of the girl’s grief or to feel compassion for her. But it was impossible not to. And as soon as the party reined into the yard of the inn that was going to be their stop for that first night, Efa made a point of going to her. The girl was whimpering and shaking, whether with fear or from the cold, as flakes of light snow began to fall from the darkening sky.
‘Here, come with me,’ Efa took hold of the girl, helping her down from her seat and covering her with the edge of her mantle. They followed the men into the inn and into the wide, low room that had been made available for their use. The landlord was fussing around the prince, so Efa quietly pulled the child to a small pallet bed in the far corner of the room and made her sit on it. She knelt in front of her, not caring that her silk now rested in damp-stained rushes. It was not her dress anyway.
‘What is your name?’ she asked gently.
‘Siwan.’ It was barely a whisper, her eyes wide as they searched Efa’s face.
‘Siwan, I am Efa. I will look after you and you will look after me. We will stay together. We will keep each other safe. Do you understand?’
The small head nodded but the eyes never left Efa’s face. Efa leaned in closer and smiled so that Siwan could see it. She had both the girl’s frozen hands in hers. The inn was not very much warmer than being outside, but at least they were out of the cutting wind. As she glanced around at the men noisily eating and preparing themselves to sleep, she caught sight of her new husband. Suddenly she was thankful that this poor child had been forced to journey with them. She had no need of a maid and as soon as she could, she would send this girl back to her family. But for tonight she was grateful for her presence. She did not know if she was supposed to demand a private room for herself, or whether her husband was even yet enquiring after one for them both. She did know that she did not want to sleep alone, and she did not want to be available to her new husband either. Not tonight. Tonight she would stay with Siwan, unnoticed, hopefully.
She laid Siwan down and, unbuckling her own soft mantle, took it from her shoulders to lay it over the girl’s shivering body. Efa carefully removed her wimple and veil, took Marared’s barrette from her hair and tucked it with her boots under the pallet, before settling herself down beside Siwan on the narrow bed and pulling the edge of the mantle over to cover them both.