The Ivory and the Candlelight

“Sick as a dog,” says the cook. “But eaten everything I made. She’ll soon recover from that sea crossing.”

The maid nods, sagely. “Reckoned as much,” she says. “Is that why she’s throwing ‘er food through the window then?”

“Aye, she never!” exclaims the cook, slamming down her spoon.  “I don’t believe it. I make the best cabbage soup this side of the Isles.”

“I reckon she don’t know that,” continues the maid, “and it’s dissolving the masonry outside ‘er window. Also the men says could you maybe use less cabbage next time?”

“Less cabbage in my cabbage soup? Don’t talk nonsense, girl! Now get out of here before I kicks you out. Go on, get.” She shoos the girl out, wielding her spoon like a deadly weapon, and the maid flees.

The turret is silent, apart from the whispers of mice scurrying through the walls.  Branwen looks down at her hands, locked immobile in her lap like something made of ivory, lifeless.  The rope marks still burn, red and angry, and her fingers itch to touch the wounds but she resists. There is no need for ropes anymore, not in this place. She is surrounded now not by ocean but by a sea of stone and soldiers and spying courtiers, and this would not be so easy to escape.

“Oh, Bran,” she whispers into the fetid silence, and when the tears start down her cheeks she hangs her head to hide her shame from the empty walls. And it is this picture of dejection that the maid encounters when she swings open the door cheerily with a tray balanced on one hip and a smile on her face and says, “Afternoon, Grace!”

Then the smile drops as she sees Branwen’s face and she flings the tray onto the nearest table, sending a clatter of spoons and scrolls onto the floor, and she kneels down by the young woman and says more softly, “Lady, what’s the matter? Is it the cabbage soup? I tol’ the cook it weren’t no good but she didn’t listen to me and –”

“Listen,” interrupts Branwen icily, ignoring the tears that have left cold tracks down her cheeks, “it’s not the soup.  Nothing is wrong. I forbid you to tell anyone of what you’ve seen.” And she swipes at her face with wrists that stung on contact with her salt water tears.  The maid looks at them. Branwen hurriedly hides them in her sleeves again.

“I forbid you,” she repeats. “What is your name, girl?”

“Caoihme, Lady,” the maid says, and rises from the floor to curtsy.

“Stop that. I am not your Lady, and there is no need to bow to me. I will, however, curse you, your sons, and your sons’ sons if you ever breathe a word of what you see in this chamber to anyone else. Do you understand?”

Caoihme thinks back to her exchange with the cook.  “Perfectly, La- madam,” she says.

“Good.” Branwen stands now, and forces her stiff hip to cooperate, to not give her away as she strides over to the window to look out. The sun is setting, and its dying rays illuminate the castle in rich, liquid gold light. In this light, her prison seems almost beautiful. But somewhere within these stone warrens is Matholwych, and Branwen cannot resist a shudder thinking of that name, that man, with his lies and deception….

Caoihme is still standing there, watching her, as Branwen is very aware. Her raven hair is its own presence, her braid thick as a woman’s arm and so heavy it looks as though it could topple her slight figure, even smaller after the crossing so that her dress hangs loosely from her shoulders.

“And no more cabbage soup,” says Branwen.  “It’s foul. Instead I want roasted meat, and warm bread and honey, and wine. Is this not fare befitting of your future queen?”

“Em, aye of course,” stutters Caoihme, frozen by Branwen’s sudden and startling gaze as she turns from the window and directs the full force of her attention on the curly-haired young woman near the door. “Of course. I’ll tell the cook then, I will.”

The silence stretches then, the two women unable to break the gaze and look away first. Caoihme is pale, and plump, with masses of curly hair streaked with blonde and gold and amber, while Branwen is the opposite: angular, and dark, with smooth black hair and inscrutable eyes. These two contrasting images are frozen as something unspoken rushes between them.

At last those dark eyes flick away and Caoihme suddenly feels like her bone are about to collapse into jelly. She takes a breath.

“I’ll just go tell the cook now then about that wine and, and meat,” she mutters, and flees.

“What do you mean she wants wine and meat and bread? Are you out of your mind, girl? She’s not been well.  She needs a good solid diet of cabbage soup.” The cook waves her wooden spoon and sighs.  “I’m speakin’ to someone about this, I am. I can’t be for preparing all kinds of meals at all times.”

“That is your job,” Caoihme points out, and is chased out of the kitchen for the second time that day.

Upstairs, in the silence, Branwen begins to plot.


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