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The torturous ache in Rhianwyn’s heart was nearly unbearable. It even hurt to breathe. She watched the wooden coffin lowered into the ground and began to softly sob. Knowing she’d never see her mother’s lovely face or hear her voice again was unimaginable. Her father draped a comforting arm around her shoulder. He was suffering his own misery—his compounded with discernable guilt for Rhianwyn’s mother, Mererid, died in childbed.
Rhianwyn no longer listened to the priest. Instead she watched a red squirrel scamper up a nearby tree. She smiled inwardly at the unruly tufts of hair by its ears. Her gaze then followed a flock of starlings creating their unique formations in the sky. Rhianwyn longed to soar like those birds or at least feel as carefree as she had only days ago. She didn’t want to hear of souls, heaven, or hell. She only wanted her mother. Mererid had been strong, healthy, and vivacious, but she’d been cursed with the cruel fate so many women met.
As a healer, Mererid often assisted with midwifery. Rhianwyn sometimes accompanied her. Far too often they’d seen women die in childbed or soon after. Yet always bright and optimistic, Mererid hadn’t feared that. She said death was merely part of life; that a person lived as long as they were meant to and people should rejoice in all the days they were given and not dwell on the duration. Mererid also believed life here was only part of a soul’s eternal journey. Rhianwyn yearned to possess more of her mother’s faith and positivity.
Although she adored children, Rhianwyn had already decided she’d never want babies. In fact, she swore she’d never lie with a man if she might meet the dismal fate of dying in childbed. She’d voiced that to her mother only weeks ago. Mererid encouraged her to speak to her and never judged Rhianwyn’s thoughts or feelings. She only assured her that she’d change her mind. When she was of an age to fall in love or experience physical longings, she would desire to lie with a man for it was perfectly natural to want that. She said besides the intrinsic pleasure, it brought joy and comfort. But now, Rhianwyn’s mind was firm—she most certainly would not share intimacies in a man’s bed.
“Time to go, daughter.” Her father’s voice pulled her from her musings.
Rhianwyn nodded. The grave attendants began to shovel dirt on the coffin. The other people here walked away. Rhianwyn glanced across the cemetery to see the priest had gone to the next burial—Elspeth Jory’s mother. Elspeth wasn’t exactly Rhianwyn’s friend. In truth, they were at odds more than they agreed, but she was an acquaintance near her age and Rhianwyn enjoyed their lively conversations.
Elspeth, her parents, and siblings were castle servants as their parents had been and theirs—for generations. Elspeth’s father was a groundskeeper. Elspeth and her mother, Nora, cleaned the king’s and his family’s chambers. Nora, had recently died of childbed fever. Elspeth’s newborn brother was living with her eldest brother and his wife. Her father worked long hours and men were seldom responsible for an infant’s care.
“I’d like to stay a while longer, Father,” Rhianwyn said.
He looked like he didn’t fully approve, but he didn’t protest. William Albray was kind-hearted and soft-spoken. Although he loved her without question, he’d find it difficult parenting his strong-willed daughter without her mother.
“Don’t be long, Rhianwyn. You shouldn’t be out after dark and there’ll be people coming by to pay their respects.”
“I’ll be home before sunset, Father. I promise.”
She affectionately touched his cheek. He smiled, but it didn’t mask his grief. He’d deeply loved his Welshland beauty as he often referred to Rhianwyn’s black-haired, blue-eyed mother.
The grave now filled, the grave diggers went to stand by the crowd near Elspeth’s family, waiting to complete the grim task there, too. Elspeth had four older brothers, all married. She had three younger brothers, several nephews, and now her new baby brother. She’d undoubtedly miss her mother even though Elspeth hadn’t been close with Nora—not like Rhianwyn and Mererid. But her father wouldn’t be her only family.
Finally alone, Rhianwyn lowered herself to the ground and wept unrestrainedly.
“Oh Mam, how am I to live without you?” Rhianwyn whispered half expecting to hear her mother reply with her unfaltering gentle wisdom. Instead she only heard the monotone voice of the priest saying the same words he’d said at her mother’s grave.
Rhianwyn looked beyond this churchyard to another—the cemetery for paupers or outcasts. She espied Selena, the girl most mothers wouldn’t have permitted their daughters to befriend. However, Rhianwyn’s beautiful mother hadn’t been like most. Mererid accepted everyone and inspired Rhianwyn to do the same. Therefore, Rhianwyn had befriended Selena when they were small girls. Though she didn’t see her often, she was Rhianwyn’s best friend.
Only a handful of women stood with Selena while her mother, Beatrice, was buried. No priest spoke or prayed for her. In the church’s opinion Selena’s mother’s soul was already damned. There was no great crowd of mourners as her mother, Mererid, the respected healer had drawn or Elspeth’s mother with many castle servants in attendance. There was only the other harlots, as Selena’s mother had been. Beatrice hadn’t died in childbed, but at the hands of one of the men who paid her for what was done within a bed.
Mererid hadn’t hidden those truths from Rhianwyn even though her father hadn’t agreed and he seldom voiced his disapproval of anything her mother did. William hoped to shelter Rhianwyn. Mererid reasoned since their daughter, now fourteen, had recently experienced her first womanly bleeding, she’d benefit more from her being straightforward even regarding matters such as physical relations in order to prepare her for life. Unfortunately, she hadn’t prepared Rhianwyn for living without her.
Selena morosely sobbed, too. Previously, she’d been comforted by the other women, but they’d left her. Elspeth also stood alone at her mother’s grave now. Elspeth was thirteen, Selena only twelve—all young to be motherless. Rhianwyn went to Elspeth, only a stone’s throw away.
“I’m sorry for the loss of your mother,” Rhianwyn said as Elspeth quickly wiped away her tears. She was a strong girl in appearance and countenance. Tall and sturdily built with somewhat sharp features, her blonde hair pulled back from her face and neatly plaited; she took pride in appearing stoic. This sometimes made her seem abrupt, unlikable—almost cold-hearted. But intuitively gifted, like Mererid, Rhianwyn was able to see what others couldn’t. Elspeth wasn’t as cantankerous as her gruff demeanor suggested. She simply seldom allowed her tender, vulnerable side to be seen.
“And I yours,” Elspeth finally replied.
“Thank you.” Rhianwyn tucked her light-brown hair behind her ear. “I’m going to comfort Selena now.”
“You can’t be seen with her.” Elspeth scowled. “She’s the daughter of a sordid woman.”
“I don’t need your approval to do what I like, Elspeth Jory. When my own mother first came to Wessex, she was treated unkindly simply because she was from Cymru.”
“She didn’t choose to be from Welshland,” Elspeth retorted, like that, too, was not something anyone would want to be.
“Do you actually believe Selena’s mother chose to do what she did? It was surely out of necessity.”
“I’d be a beggar before I’d ever be a whore,” Elspeth haughtily replied.
“A whore sleeps in a warm bed and is fed regularly—two meals a day from what I’ve heard,” Rhianwyn said, even knowing it would antagonize the other girl.
“Carnal heat of the flesh within that warm bed got Selena’s mother killed,” Elspeth said.
Elspeth knew more on the topic of coupling than most girls her age for she lived in the castle’s servants’ quarters. Loads of scandalous happenings occurred there as well as the usual amount of gossip regarding those events.
“Was it not similar heat within a warm bed that saw our own mothers dead?” Rhianwyn dared to say.
“With a man to whom they were wed.” Elspeth crossed her arms.
“That doesn’t change the sad truth they all lie in a grave now.” Rhianwyn said.
“You’re contemptible, Rhianwyn Albray. Our mothers will be in heaven. Hers will not!”
“If you wish to believe that, so be it. My hope is that they’re all somewhere better with no sorrow, pain, or fear. Whether it’s truly heaven… I doubt even the priests know, and clearly not all priests will find out with their sometimes reprehensible behavior. Now, I am going to Selena for she didn’t choose her mother or how she lived or died any more than you or I.”
Rhianwyn lifted her mud-caked skirts and made her way across the uneven soggy ground. Although often rainy here, today the steady drizzle added to her heavy heart and the solemn dreariness in the graveyard. She climbed the fence at the edge of the cemetery, snagging her best kirtle and cussed under her breath thinking a grieving daughter probably shouldn’t cuss.
This bleak cemetery had only remedial wooden crosses tied together with rope or twine. Few names were carved for most low-born couldn’t read or write. Some graves bore small unmarked stones, unlike the graveyard where Mererid and Nora now rested with stone crosses and markers painstakingly etched. If families were illiterate, they honored their loved ones, often even sold their possessions to pay someone to immortalize their names upon the headstones.
Selena, the gentlest person Rhianwyn knew, wept even harder in seeing Rhianwyn. She went to Selena and held her close. Mererid always said if you were embracing someone—make it worthwhile. Hold them tightly whether in joy or sorrow—either way you’d both benefit. Selena’s sobs wracked her slight frame. Rhianwyn wept with her and brushed a red curl from her thin, pallid face. When Elspeth joined them, her closely guarded tears escaped… her hard exterior shattered in seeing Selena’s deep grief.
“My condolences in the loss of your mother,” Elspeth managed.
“Thank you,” Selena sniffled. “My heart aches for both of you, too.” She still trembled, clinging to Rhianwyn.
“Where will you stay now?” Rhianwyn asked, concerned.
“I must remain at the house on the edge of the village—where I was born and I’ve always lived. The women there are all I have now.”
“But won’t you be expected to…you know…do what women do in that house of ill repute?” Elspeth asked.
“Elspeth!” Rhianwyn scolded.
“It’s all right, Rhianwyn,” Selena said. “Everyone knows that’s what will eventually become of me. Though likely not for a while. Thankfully, Shandy doesn’t permit children to be used by men.”
“Perhaps you could come live with Father and me,” Rhianwyn suggested.
“Your father wouldn’t agree. Your cottage is small and I’d be another mouth to feed when times are hard. Besides, men want my kind for only one thing.”
“Father’s not like that,” Rhianwyn disagreed.
“Most men are like that,” Elspeth said. “Now your father’s alone, he’ll probably be sneaking down the back lane to that disorderly house like many others.”
Rhianwyn threw a pointed stare at Elspeth, but mournful weeping effectively disrupted their conversation. It came from the treed cemetery up the hill near the castle. It was the churchyard reserved for nobles–lords and ladies, kings and queens, and their families. The girls looked at each other, then walked up the hill and peered through the trees.
“It’s the princess,” Selena whispered.
“Her mother, the queen’s, died, too,” Elspeth added.
“I heard that even though she was heavy with child herself, your mother was called to attend the queen when her physicians and her midwife couldn’t assist her,” Selena said to Rhianwyn.
Rhianwyn nodded. “That’s true. Sadly, the queen and her babe were already lost by the time Mam got there.”
“It’s just as well.” Elspeth looked serious. “Or she might’ve been flogged for not saving them. The king’s physician was lashed and thrown in the dungeon. The midwife’s forever banished or so it’s been said.”
“Castle gossip’s not always reliable.” Rhianwyn shook her head.
“There’s usually some truth to every rumor,” Elspeth said.
“I don’t believe that,” Rhianwyn replied. “Does the cook spit in the broth when he’s in a particularly foul mood?”
Elspeth actually laughed at that. Selena and Rhianwyn smiled, too. It felt good to smile. She hadn’t in the days since her mother died, though it brought guilt, too.
“I’ve never seen it, but it might be true,” Elspeth replied. “I certainly don’t eat the broth, just to be safe.”
“Why’s the princess unattended?” Selena asked. “I thought she wasn’t permitted to be alone or do anything on her own…even wipe her own backside.”
“It is odd she’s without her lady attendant.” Elspeth nodded. “The king’s probably already off finding another wife to provide him with a male heir.”
“What are you doing?” Elspeth asked as Rhianwyn pushed away the thick branches intending to climb the iron fence.
“Going to offer condolences for the princess’s loss, too.”
“You cannot!” Elspeth said.
Elspeth’s bossiness irritated Rhianwyn, especially today when her emotions were already raw.
“Why do you presume you can tell me what I can do? You should know that only spurs me on,” Rhianwyn replied.
When Rhianwyn did climb the fence and walked toward the princess, she saw three knights by the gate. They all stared but one. Sir Severin was a friend of her father’s. Therefore, he nodded to Rhianwyn as she approached the princess.
This cemetery had elaborately fashioned gravestones, tall crosses, huge ornate monuments—some nearly as large as the immense sunstones on the open plain near their village.
Princess Lilliana looked up. Through her fine veil, Rhianwyn saw her dark-brown eyes were red and swollen. She was attired in rich black robes and cloak. Usually she was seen in stunning golds, reds, or purples. Her pitch-black hair was fashioned in a knotted braid wrapped elaborately about her head.
“I doubt you know who I am…” Rhianwyn began.
“I know you,” Princess Lilliana said, lifting the veil. “Your father sometimes advises mine and your lovely mother was a renowned healer. I’m sorry to hear she was taken to the Lord in the same manner as mine and that both babies were lost. I did so long for a sibling. Being an only child is very lonely.”
“I feel that, too. I’m sorry for the loss of your mother, our queen. She was kind to me whenever I saw her when with my mother.”
“She truly liked your mother, Rhianwyn,” Princess Lilliana said. “I believe she considered her a friend. She requested her presence much earlier during her lengthy womanly ordeal, yet Father wouldn’t have her fetched. Instead he listened to his inept physician, the old male healer, and the midwife. If he’d permitted your mother to see mine earlier…perhaps…” She stoically raised her pointed chin and sniffled.
Elspeth and Selena approached now, too. Selena curtsied to the princess. Elspeth only nodded.
“We’ve all lost our mothers—all laid to rest this day,” Rhianwyn said. “In my mind that forever binds us.”
Rhianwyn noticed the displeased expression on Elspeth’s face. She resented the king and his family. Most in Elspeth’s family were honored in a life of servitude, but not Elspeth. She was ashamed of her position and loathed her duties.
“It’s a grievous pain that cannot be remedied,” Princess Lilliana finally replied. “I was sorely saddened to hear of your losses, also.”
“I didn’t think you’d know anything about us or that our mothers died,” Elspeth said.
“I insist that Agnes, my lady attendant, tell me all the news about the kingdom.”
Rhianwyn saw the knights looking their way. They’d soon be made to part. The princess wasn’t allowed friends—certainly not common-born.
“We should meet again for we’ll understand each other’s pain,” Rhianwyn said. “No matter our positions or circumstances, our mothers will be greatly missed and we’ll surely crave female companionship. None of us have sisters either.”
“I doubt that’ll happen,” Elspeth argued. “She wouldn’t dare risk being seen with the likes of us.” Elspeth motioned to the princess.
“You wouldn’t ordinarily be seen with the likes of me.” Selena looked somewhat accusingly at Elspeth. “You’d never have come to speak with me if Rhianwyn hadn’t, nor would either of us approached the princess if not for Rhianwyn.”
“Call me Lilliana,” the princess whispered so the knights wouldn’t hear.
“That’d see us taken to the dungeon straightaway,” Elspeth scoffed.
“When alone we’ll be equals and I hope one day…close friends.” Lilliana ignored Elspeth’s comment. “You needn’t address me by my title. We’ll all simply be grieving daughters. Although it’s difficult for me to get away from the castle, I’ll persuade Agnes to let me walk here to the cemetery—perhaps on this date each moon.”
“I’d like that,” Rhianwyn said. “I hope we can arrange it.”
“The gossipmongers would surely find out,” Elspeth replied.
“How can they begrudge us time in the graveyard honoring our beloved mothers?” Rhianwyn said.
“They can’t.” Selena shook her head.
“Then let’s swear to it.” Rhianwyn held out her hand.
“Swear to being friends with a princess?” Elspeth dubiously asked.
“She’s willing to be friends with someone who’ll one day surely be a harlot,” Selena said.
“I have no friends other than my lady attendant,” Lilliana sadly admitted. “Please agree to this.”
Elspeth shrugged and stared hard at the princess.
“We all need friends,” Rhianwyn said.
“We do.” Eagerly, Selena placed her hand atop Rhianwyn’s. Lilliana didn’t hesitate but added hers, too. Elspeth still looked uncertain, but finally put her hand on the princess’s hand.
“We’re forever bound,” Rhianwyn whispered.
“We’re forever bound,” the others repeated as the knights approached.
“Time to go back to the castle, Princess,” Sir Severin said and the four girls nodded, each returning to their homes.
End of Excerpt