“In this world, there is no force equal to the strength of a woman determined to rise.”
W. E. B Du Bois
Another day, the same as any other.
Gwendolyn closed her eyes against the returning sliver of light inching in through the crack in her barricaded window, revealing so little and still too much.
The chamber comprised a rancid bed, a wobbly chair and a crippled bedside table, along with a rusty brazier so full of spent embers she could scarcely imagine it had ever been emptied or cleaned.
Even at this hour, there were armed guards posted outside her door, their eyes darkened with a gloom that must have crept into her own, because she could feel it, even now, stirring like a brume.
Far from being a queen’s bower, this was a prison chamber, stinking of piss—some of it her own. Her chamber pot sat near the door, untouched no matter how many times she’d begged for it to be emptied. Not even Ely had permission to do so, although now and again, when no one was looking, she snuck it away, returning it fresh and Gwendolyn felt such pangs of regret over having reduced her dear friend to the duties of a lowly chamber maid.
This was not the life she had imagined for herself, nor for Ely, and indeed, unless Gwendolyn were ill, she’d never have been so lazy or rude to burden any of her maids with a chamber pot, only for the sake of avoiding the garderobe.
How much loathing could a person endure before the soul turned black as cold embers?
How many tears could a body shed?
How many meals could one refuse before the belly shriveled and the body wasted away?
In the half-light's stillness, Gwendolyn lay curled beneath the stinking furs, with her cheek against the chamber’s only luxury, a lavish, wooden pillow—a wedding gift, so Locrinus claimed. Made from polished cedar because the oils in the wood resisted vermin, it was softer and smoother than most headrests, but here and now, mingled with the salt of her tears, the resin caused her cheeks to burn. But wasn’t that the reason he’d gifted it to her?
Along with the pillow beneath her cheek, he’d left her Borlewen’s blade1, but she knew why he did not take it: He was ruthless enough to wish her to be reminded daily of all he had perpetrated against her family… but perhaps more pointedly, all that he could still do.
After all, she still had Ely and Bryn to consider.
Loc was a scourge, a deceiver, murderer, a liar, and thief.
And if all that were not enough, he was a bed-swerver, as well—simply one more thing no one ever bothered to tell her, that he had a lover and child. But he and Estrildis deserved one another—both vindictive and mean—and if Gwendolyn were a betting woman, she’d wager this pillow was her idea. Only a resentful lover would devise something so subtly fiendish.
Although his mother had little feeling for Gwendolyn, she at least understood Gwendolyn’s worth. Locrinus still had some need of her, and without Gwendolyn, his crown would be worth less than mud—not that she believed it would stop him from planning her demise, as he had for everyone else she loved.
A soft, keening cry escaped her parched lips, because she couldn’t bear to think of it any longer… Her father, her king.
Borlewen. Cunedda. Lowenna. Jenefer. Briallen.
Her mother and Demelza…
Gwendolyn still didn’t know where they were. Like Lady Ruan and her husband, there was no word of either, and like Ely, Gwendolyn feared the worst.
However, thanks to Loc’s detestable mother, she now knew too much about the Feast of Blades—this was how her wedding had come to be known. With the aid of his two younger brothers, Locrinus had executed every man and woman who’d stood to defend the old kings. The coup began immediately after their departure, at her wedding feast, where many of the guests were not guests at all. They were warriors in disguise, with more than poniards hidden beneath their sleeves. The first dagger found its way into King Brutus’s back, and the next came for her father.
Trevena was now occupied by Loegrian forces, all loyal to her husband. Her beloved palace was overrun with his soldiers. The nobles all fled, taking their families with them, and the Druid who’d officiated their marriage ceremony had cursed both their houses and lands, no doubt believing Gwendolyn had had a hand in the coup. But she had not, and by the time her wedding cavalcade arrived in the Loegrian capitol, both dead kings’ heads were already displayed atop the city gates, the delicate flesh of their eyes feeding the crows.
Málik, oh Málik! Where have you gone?
Don’t think of him, she commanded herself.
Don’t think of him.
Because if she did, even for a moment, she would fall to pieces and tomorrow would feel like a burden. Here in this place, she was alone. No matter that Bryn was somewhere in this palace. Gwendolyn seldom saw him, nor had she spoken to him in weeks. She saw Ely every day, but that was not the same. Ely was now obligated to Queen Innogen, forced to share her bed with the Queen Mother’s maid, and her attendance upon Gwendolyn was relegated only to the conveyance of meals.
Like a spoilt child, Gwendolyn had once pitied herself for her mother’s lack of attentions. She’d struggled with envy because Queen Eseld favored Ely more than she did Gwendolyn. For so long, she had lamented her plight, thinking herself forsaken and alone…
Poor, silly little princess…
Those were a child’s laments, and Gwendolyn understood that now… understood because she now knew what loneliness was…
Each night, she slept with her dagger. Even now, the tapered end lay resting in the smooth wood of her pillow, in the spot her husband’s head should have lain.
The violence done to her hair had left her feeling hideous, misused, and vulnerable. But Gwendolyn herself was to blame for that. She’d experienced so much trepidation over marrying Locrinus, and despite that, she’d done nothing to prevent it.
To the contrary, she’d rushed headlong into this accursed union, accepting it as her sworn duty. And worse, her willing participation in this farce—all her public avowals accepting this union—now made good and certain she hadn’t any recourse should she choose to contest the marriage. It simply wouldn’t matter whether the marriage was never consummated. The Llanrhos Druids would not rule in her favor—not the least of their reasons because she was a woman. But also, not once, but twice, she’d stood before the authorities to give assent—once during her Promise Ceremony and again under the sacred yew, where she took her sacred vows.
For all Gwendolyn knew, the tribes all also believed she’d been a willing participant in Loc’s coup. And now… here she was.
The faintest of birdsong persuaded her to reopen her eyes—a sparrow, its song lovely… persistent and full of promise. Gwendolyn blinked away a tear, listening…
Forsooth. She had never realized how much she adored that sound… till now.
Still in a trance, she watched as the sliver of light from her window lengthened, shining its stingy ray of light on the dagger embedded in her pillow. The pearl in the hilt winked fiercely, and her gaze fixed upon the dragon’s eye…
Amidst bushels and bushels of oysters, a simple white pearl was akin to finding gold. Pink was rarer still. Black was extraordinary. Add to that the dragon effigy, without its barbed tongue, and there was only one person to whom the blade could have belonged…
Last seen in her cousin’s possession in Chysauster, along with Gwendolyn’s torc, both had been discovered amidst Alderman Aelwin’s2 possessions. That it came to be in Loc’s possession said much about his culpability. And regardless, Gwendolyn could not imagine her cousin had gone easily to her fate. She would have fought—much as she’d fought for Gwendolyn and her family.
Outside, the sparrow’s song persisted, urging Gwendolyn to rise.
If she lay here much longer, she wasn’t sure what would become of her.
Get up, she told herself. Get up.
If not for herself, she must find some way to remove Ely and Bryn from this demon’s lair. At last, she sat, pulling Borlewen’s dagger from the soft wood.
Get up, get up, get out of bed
Let the sparrow’s song fill your head.
The song was Ely’s, sung to her each morning as she came bouncing into Gwendolyn’s room.
Get up, get up, never shall we part.
Let the sunshine fill your heart.
Abandoning the bed, without considering what she would do next, Gwendolyn strode toward the room’s only chair, lifting it up and carrying it to the barred window, then climbing atop it. Wedging Borlewen’s blade into the crack that had formed between the slats, she wiggled it to widen the rift until, at last, it made room for her fingers.
Outside, the sparrow song continued, so rich with hope, so beautiful. More than anything, Gwendolyn wanted to see it…
In her desperation, she tugged harder, prying one end loose. Then, blinking, she stopped to consider the board…
Despite its brilliant construction, her cousin’s dagger would never be suitable for practicing her combat skills. In the absence of her arming sword, she could whittle herself a quarterstaff, and then use it to practice with.
Returning to the task with renewed vigor, Gwendolyn tugged at the wood until it finally came free. Gods knew she might have arrived in this city with fine gowns, ribbons and jewels, yet those were never her usual accoutrements.
Like her father and grandfather before him, she was a warrior to her bones. If these people intended for her to remain abed, weeping evermore, they would be sorely aggrieved.
Hope sprang like a song from a sparrow’s beak.
1 The blade Locrinus used to shear Gwendolyn’s hair. It is also the blade he stole from her cousin, Borlewen. For more information about characters, please see the Reader’s Guide.
2 Aelwin is the subject of Gwendolyn’s investigation in Book One. He murdered Alderman Brook, poisoning him with prunes.
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