Love to delve into history? Imagine what it would have been like to walk the dusty roads of the renaissaunce. Or what about the dark ages? When you pick up a historical novel thats what you get. Time travel. How awesome is that?!
This week I have Sarah Woodbury answering my 20 Questions. So let’s see what she had to say!
1.) Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I am a homeschooling mom of four kids (ages 7 to 20), married for 21 years on September 15th, and according to my extended family, so far off the map in being arty and alternative that I’ve forgotten there even is a map. In truth, I’m incredibly staid.
2.) How long have you been writing?
I came to fiction writing 5 ½ years ago, having done the academic thing up until then, culminating with a Ph.D. in anthropology. I would routinely tell people “I haven’t a creative bone in my body.” I believed it! Not anymore J
3.) Do you have a preferred genre that you read? Is it the same as what you write?
I love historical fantasy, which is primarily what I write, but I am very eclectic and have a Kindle full of thrillers and mysteries too.
4.) What is the title of your book and where can it be found?
The Last Pendragon Saga now has two books, The Last Pendragon and my newly published, The Pendragon’s Quest. They can all be found at Amazon and Smashwords.
5.) Describe your novel in 15 words or less.
It’s a book about treachery, courage, and love in Dark Age Wales.
6.) Where did the inspiration for your story come from?
With the first book in the series, The Last Pendragon, I was looking for a real person from Welsh history with an heroic story, and I found him—Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon. This second book picks up where the first left off.
7.) How long did it take you to complete this novel from concept to published?
I wrote The Last Pendragon for NaNoWriMo 2008 and then started this sequel in the summer of 2009. I published The Last Pendragon in January of 2011. I sat on the sequel for a long time but picked it up again this spring.
8.) When you sit down to write, how does that process go? Do you outline or just let it evolve?
I usually start with an initial scene or concept. I work with that for a few chapters and see where it leads, kind of feeling my way and letting my characters figure things out for themselves, and then I start outlining once I have a better idea of where I’m going. That said, I knew the plot for The Pendragon’s Quest as soon as I was half-way through The Last Pendragon.
9.) Are there any aspects of writing you struggle with?
When I finish a book, I feel like I will never be creative that way again. And that makes it hard to start a new one because you know what a long haul it is to make it good.
10.) Are there any aspects that you simply glide through?
11.) What sets your book apart from others in the same genre?
With my background, research is something that comes very naturally to me. When I write the first draft of a book, I write in all the history, and then delete 90% of it in the second draft. It’s not necessary to the story, but because I know the history, I feel like it adds a richness to the book that I wouldn’t have without it.
12.) What is the location of your story setting and why did you choose that place/time?
Dark Age Wales. Because I’m crazy? . . . I love, love, love that era in history. It makes setting stories there an absolute pleasure.
13.) Your main characters, tell me about them. What is their back story? How did they find themselves where they are now?
Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon (Cade) is the last Pendragon, heir to the throne of Arthur, though without a kingdom, since the ruler of Gwynedd (Cadfael) killed his father and usurped his throne. He is also the goddess Arianrhod’s champion. Rhiann is Cadfael’s bastard daughter. In The Last Pendragon, they combine forces to defeat Arawn, the Lord of the Underworld. In The Pendragon’s Quest, they face Mabon, the son of Arawn and Arianrhod, who has incited the Saxons to war.
14.) I’d like to know more about your book. Tell me all about it.
And give away the plot? In short, The Last Pendragon tells the story of Cade and Rhiann’s escape from her father’s clutches, their battles with the Saxons and the sidhe (the Welsh gods), and their eventual descent to Arawn’s cavern where he is releasing demons through the Black Cauldron. In the second book, although the dark forces of Arawn are defeated, the Saxons are massing on the border of Wales, aiming for nothing less than the complete subjugation of the Welsh people. Meanwhile, the fickle god Mabon, who is loose again in the human world, searches for the Thirteen Treasures of Britain. With each one he collects, his power grows. With the other gods forbidden to interfere in the human world, it is up to Cade, Rhiann, and their companions to stop Mabon and the Saxons.
And time is running out.
15.) What do you want readers to take from your writings?
I hold with Donna Tartt, who writes: “The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone.” I want my readers to be entertained, enchanted, and left wanting more.
16.) Are more books to follow or is this a stand alone?
One more book in the series: The Song of the Pendragon.
17.) Where can readers find you?
My web page: http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/
My Twitter code is: http://twitter.com/SarahWoodbury
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sarahwoodburybooks
1) I drink coffee like one of my characters in my time travel fantasy Prince of Time: with more sugar and cream than is reasonable.
2) My husband and I have been friends since we were 14, when I looked across the band room (I played trumpet, he played French horn) and said “hmmm, he’s cute”.
3) Our household hasn’t had a television since 1996.
19.) What do you do in your down time? For fun.
The Last Pendragon
Aberffraw, North Wales, Kingdom of Gwynedd
The smell of smoke and sweat filled the hall, mingling with the overlay of roast pig and boiled vegetables. More soldiers than usual sat at the long tables, here to celebrate their victory. The mood was subdued, however, not the wild jubilation that sometimes accompanied triumph and caused Rhiann’s father to lock her in her room in case he couldn’t control the men.
Today, the drinking had begun in earnest the moment the men had returned from the fight and settled into a steady rhythm Rhiann had never quite seen before. Here and there, a hand clenched a cross hung around the neck or an amulet against the powers of darkness, that should her father see, might mean death for that soldier. For a man to ask the gods for protection instead of the Christ meant he was less afraid of the King of Gwynedd than someone, or perhaps something, else. Rhiann had been afraid of her father her whole life and couldn’t imagine fearing another more, not even the demons that were said to walk the night, hungering for men’s souls.
Perspiration trickled down the back of Rhiann’s dress, made of the finest blue wool that her father had gotten in trade from merchants on the continent. The country folk jested that sheep outnumbered men in their lands. Like the shepherds who traveled through the mountains with them, they were also tougher here than those in warmer, dryer climates and their wool not as soft. The Saxon threat was enough to keep the Cymry within their own borders, but the sailors still took to the western seas, bringing in trade goods of wine, finely wrought cloth, metalwork, and pottery.
For once, Rhiann’s father, King Cadfael of Gwynedd, had eaten little and drunk less. For her own preservation, Rhiann had always been sensitive to his moods and noted the exact instant his disposition changed. He shifted in his seat and rolled his shoulders, like a man preparing for a battle instead of the next course of his meal. A moment later, the big, double doors to the hall creaked open, pushed inward by two of the men who always guarded them. The rain puddled in the courtyard behind them and Rhiann wished she were out in it instead of here; anywhere but here.
She kept her place, standing behind and to the left of her father’s chair. It was her duty to tend to his needs at dinner as punishment for her refusal to marry the man he’d chosen for her. Rhiann hadn’t turned the man down because he didn’t love her, or she him; she knew better than to wish for that. It was a hope for mutual respect for which she was holding out. But even this seemed too much to ask for an unloved, bastard daughter. Consequently, Rhiann spent her days as a maidservant, albeit one who worked above stairs. She didn’t regret her station. As the months had passed, she’d come to prefer it to sharing space at the table with her father and his increasingly belligerent allies.
Silence descended on the hall as two of King Cadfael’s men-at-arms entered, dragging between them a young man whose head fell so far forward that no one could see his face. He was visibly collapsed, with his arms dangling over the guard’s shoulders and his feet trailing behind him. As the trio progressed along the aisle between the tables toward the King’s seat, the youth seemed to recover somewhat, getting his feet under him and managing to keep up with their strides. As he came more to himself, he straightened further.
By the time he reached the dais on which Rhiann’s father sat, he was using the men-at-arms as crutches on either side of him. Because he was significantly taller than they, it was even as if he was hammering them into the ground with his weight. His footsteps rang out more firmly with every stride, echoing from floor to ceiling, matching the drumming of Rhiann’s heart. The closer he got to her father, the harder it became to swallow her tears. By the souls of all the Saints, Cadwaladr, why did you come?
Rhiann had been her father’s prisoner her whole life, unable to escape his iron hand. The high, wooden palisade that circled Aberffraw had always signified prison walls to her, rather than a means to protect her from the darkness beyond. This young man had grown up on the other side of that wall. He’d not had to enter here. He’d had a choice, but had recklessly thrown that choice away and was now captive, just as she was. She felt herself dying a little inside with every step he took as he approached Cadfael.
The young man, Cadwaladr, the last of the Pendragons, fixed his eyes on those of the woman sitting beside the King. She was Alcfrith, Cadfael’s wife, taken as bride after the death of Cadwaladr’s father. Rhiann couldn’t see her face, but from the back, the tension was a rod up her spine and her shoulders were frozen as if in ice.
“Hello, Mother.” Cadwaladr’s lips were cracked and bleeding, puffy from the beating that had bruised the whole length of him. Rhiann had heard they’d as close to killed him as it didn’t matter, but from the look of him now, the men-at-arms to whom she’d spoken had exaggerated.
“Son.” Alcfrith’s voice as stiff as her body.
Rhiann’s father ranged back in his chair, legs crossed at the ankles to project his calm and deny the importance of the moment. “Foolish whelp. I’d thought you’d put up more of a fight, not that I regret the ease of your defeat. This will allow me to reinforce my eastern border more quickly than I’d thought. Penda will be pleased.”
“You and I both know why my company was not prepared for battle today,” Cadwaladr said.
Cadfael shrugged. “Your men are dead and you a shell of a man. What did you think? That the people would welcome you? That I would let you take my lands?”
“My lands,” Cadwaladr said.
Rhiann’s father sneered his contempt. He reached out an arm to Alcfrith and massaged the back of her neck. She didn’t bend to him. If anything, the tension in her increased. “You meet your death tomorrow, as proof of your ignobility.”
Cadfael waved his hand to Rhiann, signaling her to refill his cup of wine and that the interview was over. She obeyed, of course, stepping forward with her carafe. The guards tugged on Cadwaladr, but as he moved, Rhiann glanced up and met his eyes. It was only for a heartbeat, but in that space it seemed to Rhiann that they were the only ones in the room. She expected to see desperation and fear in him, or at the very least, pain. Instead, she saw understanding. She could hardly credit it. When had she ever known that?
“You’re wrong, Father,” Rhiann said, as the guards hauled Cadwaladr away. “Cadwaladr comes to us as a defeated prisoner, and yet, he has more honor, more nobility, than any other man in this room.”
“He is the Pendragon,” Alcfrith said, with more starch in her voice than Rhiann had heard in many years. “Cadfael can’t change that, even by killing him.”
Rhiann’s father snorted a laugh into his cup before draining it. He didn’t even slap the women down, so sure was he of his own omnipotence. “You may keep your dreams.” He pushed himself to his feet and turned to leave. “The dragon is chained; the prophecy dead.”
Rhiann had heard about Cadwaladr her whole life. As a child, men in Cadfael’s court had spoken of him as if he were a demon from the Underworld, or worse, a Saxon, coming to steal their home like a thief in the night. Later on, as she began to piece the story together, she realized that he was only a little older than she was, twenty-two now to her twenty, and their words said more about their own fears than Cadwaladr’s power.
Rhiann’s father had married Cadwaladr’s mother after Cadwallon’s death in battle, many miles from Aberffraw. The High Council of Wales had wanted peace in Gwynedd, in order to focus the concerted attention of all the native British rulers on the threat of the encroaching Saxons. Throughout Rhiann’s life, the Saxon kingdoms had been growing in number and power. Two centuries before, the British kings had invited them in, but once here, could no longer control them. The Saxons had overrun nearly all of what had been British lands only a few generations before.
By now, everyone knew that the Saxons wouldn’t be returning to their ancestral lands across the water any time soon. Her father, Cadfael, and Cadwallon before him, had allied with Penda of Mercia, but it had left a sour taste in the collective mouth of their people. All the Cymry knew that it was only a matter of time before the Saxons turned their gaze covetously on Wales.
The Council had settled upon Cadfael as the man to impose peace amid the chaos of constant war, provided Alcfrith agreed to the marriage. Rhiann suspected that ‘agreed’ was too positive a word, and like most noble women, Alcfrith had had little choice in the matter. While the High Kingship had never materialized, and he didn’t even rule all Gwynedd like Cadwallon had, Cadfael did control a significant piece of it: Cadwaladr’s birthright, as he’d said.
What Alcfrith had not done upon her marriage was give up her son, instead sending him away to be raised by another. Rhiann’s father had raged at Alcfrith time and again, demanding to know to whom she’d given him. Alcfrith had refused to say, and perhaps that was the bargain she’d made—safety for her son, in exchange for her allegiance.
And now Cadwaladr was here, walking into the lion’s den, although not quite of his own accord. Cadfael had spies everywhere and had known of his coming. The story he’d put out was that Cadwaladr’s small band had forded the Menai Straits and met Cadfael’s army just shy of Bryn Celliddu. Cadfael hadn’t even bothered to meet the force himself, instead delegating the task to lesser men.
But Rhiann wasn’t so sure, especially now that she’d heard Cadwaladr’s exchange with her father. Before the feast, she’d questioned some of the older men in the garrison, particularly those who’d held allegiance to Cadwaladr’s father once upon a time. A few of them had muttered among themselves about the evil Cadfael’s acts would bring to Gwynedd. One even mentioned that he’d seen demons in the woods surrounding Aberffraw. The others had dismissed that as fantasy, and then together they’d rebuffed Rhiann’s questions, as they had every right to do. Yet each, individually, had given her a look—like he wanted to speak—but thought better of it. Why had Cadwaladr come, only to be defeated so easily? Why had he sacrificed his men for such a fleeting chance?
And sacrifice them he had. Cadwaladr was the only survivor.
* * * * *
Rhiann pushed open the door to the room. Cadfael was keeping Cadwaladr in a third floor chamber, stripped of every piece of furniture. Cadwaladr huddled in a corner by the dark fireplace, the bread beside him uneaten. The window above his head had been left open—whether by him or her father Rhiann didn’t know—but Cadwaladr hadn’t tried to escape that way. Given that the drop to the ground was considerable, Rhiann wondered if her father hadn’t left the window open to tempt Cadwaladr to leap from it, as a way out of the death that faced him tomorrow.
Cadwaladr looked up as Rhiann entered and straightened his back against the wall. His gaze was steady. As before in the great hall, it was difficult to look away from him. Rhiann shut the door on the guard who’d followed a few paces behind her.
“Knock when you’re done with him.” He coughed and dropped the bar on the heavy oak door.
Rhiann imagined him smirking behind the door but didn’t care. Her position in the household was so low that to fall a little farther could hardly matter. She turned to the young man on the floor. “Lord Cadwaladr.”
“Call me Cade. I’ve not earned my title.” He paused. “Yet.” He moistened his lips. Scabs had formed on them from the beating he’d received.
“Don’t.” Rhiann hastened forward with her cloth and washing bowl. “You’ll start them bleeding again.”
Cade licked his lower lip again anyway, prompting Rhiann to make an irritated face at him, annoyed that he was yet another male who routinely ignored whatever she said in order to do the exact opposite.
“Who are you?” Cade said.
“Rhiannon. Though everyone calls me Rhiann. I’m here to see to your wounds.”
“You are Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon,” Rhiann said. “Your very name testifies to the truth of your claim to be the last Pendragon.”
“Cadwaladr.” He laughed under his breath and shook his head. “’Battle-leader’ my father may have christened me, but today the name bore false witness.”
“I don’t know about that.” Rhiann crouched in front of Cade and put her cloth to a jagged cut on his forehead. It was a task she’d done for innumerable others: men such as he who’d been wounded in battle, or in a fight, or in any of a hundred other mistakes that left men battered and bloody. She was pleased to see that Cade’s wounds were already healing well. Cade flinched when she touched him, however, and made to push her hand away.
“There’s no need,” he said.
“My father sent me to you. He has sought your death all my life. The better you look, the more glory your end confers on him.”
Cade had been watching her face as she ministered to him and now leaned forward to grab the fist that held the cloth and stop her movements. “You’re my sister?”
They wasted three heartbeats in a silent tug-of-war with the bloody cloth, but Rhiann persisted and Cade finally gave up, releasing her.
Rhiann shook her head, dabbing at his forehead again. “No. My mother is not yours. She was my father’s mistress and died at my birth, not long after he married your mother. You are two years older than I am.”
Cade sat back. At his apparent acceptance, Rhiann took a moment to study him as he was studying her. She knew what he saw: black eyes and black hair, pale skin and straight teeth. She looked nothing like her father or her dead mother, her nurse had told her. As a child, she’d hoped that she was a changeling and dreamed of the day her true family would come to take her away.
Rhiann also looked nothing like any of the daughters Cade’s mother had produced with Cadfael. They were blond like she was, harking back to the northern blood of her ancestors. Yet Cade little resembled Alcfrith either and Rhiann wondered at his long dead father. Was he as tall? Were his shoulders as broad and his hair as dark as Cade’s? Did he draw the attention of everyone in a room to him as Cade did? It was only his eyes he must have gotten from his mother, although hers were a pale blue, like a washed out winter sky, and his were brighter and more piercing.
“I noticed you standing behind your father’s chair.” Cade released Rhiann from the spell that meeting his eyes had put her under. She moved back, setting down the bowl to rinse the cloth in the warm water. “If not for the fine cloth of your dress, I’d have thought you one of his slaves.”
“I’m hardly more than that, in truth,” Rhiann said. “My father demands that I serve him.”
“And you do not wish to?” Cade said.
“He murders you tomorrow, Cade,” she said, by way of explanation. “And you are hardly the first.”
“So you’re a prisoner of a kind as well.” Cade reached out as if to touch the back of Rhiann’s hand with his finger. He held his hand above hers, touching but not touching, and then withdrew. “How am I to die?”
“Hanging,” Rhiann said. “They’re building the gallows now. Are you much wounded elsewhere?”
Cade shrugged and rested the back of his head against the wall. “Only a few bruises. And my pride.”
Able suddenly to give voice to her anger, Rhiann threw down her cloth. “Why? Why did you come here?”
Cade canted his head to one side to look at her. “Why do you care?”
Rhiann gazed at him, exasperated. “Because we’ve been waiting! The people of Gwynedd have been waiting for twenty years for you to come, and we would have gladly waited for many more until you were ready, rather than have you die tomorrow by my father’s will.”
Cade shook his head. “You don’t know, do you?” His voice was barely above a whisper and Rhiann leaned in closer to hear him better.
“Know what?” she said.
Cade shook his head again. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter now.”
“It does matter,” Rhiann said, feeling fierce. “What does the bard sing of Arthur? ‘Fear and dread followed him, even to his death?’ That describes my father just as well. You shouldn’t be dying here for nothing.”
“‘Fear and dread followed him, even to his death, before we covered him with earth. Yet death do I prefer to cowardice. For this bitter death, I lament,’” Cade quoted. “I know that Arthur cast a shadow far longer than mine ever could, but I would be such a one as fought at his side.”
“Arthur is dead, Cade,” Rhiann said. “And you’ll die tomorrow. There’s not much there for the bards to sing of.”
Cade gave her a blank stare, which she met, and then looked away. “I’m sorry,” Rhiann said.
Cade sat silent, and then he sighed hard, forcing the air out of his chest. “I am less of a man for telling you, but my heart tells me that I must speak to someone, even if she is only a girl-who-is-not-my-sister.”
He studied Rhiann again and she waited, feeling like she was finally going to be told the truth, and perhaps it was only a stranger such as he who could do it. “Rhiannon,” he said, surprising her by using her formal name, “your father invited me here.”
Rhiann’s hand jerked and she nearly spilled the bowl of water. “He what?”
Cade gave her a rueful look. “We were to meet at the ford of the Cefni River, here on Anglesey. We’ve been negotiating our meeting for weeks.”
“I’m sure nobody but my father and a few advisors knew that,” Rhiann said. “There’s been no talk; no gossip.”
Cade shrugged. “I was clearly a fool to believe him, and even more of one to come here; but it was not without cause. After I took from him one of his forts on the mainland of Gwynedd, he sent an emissary to me. He said that he didn’t have an heir and would bestow the honor upon me, given that my mother is his wife. But he felt he needed to meet me first. You must admit, this overture was not without precedent and after my initial skepticism, I believed him.”
“He . . .” Rhiann swallowed hard through the thickening in her throat. She could barely get the words out. “Nobody who knows my father would ever have believed him. He hates you with such passion I’ve thought at times his heart would give out when he speaks of you.”
“I didn’t have the benefit of your experience,” Cade said, “nor the advice of counselors who would know better. Even my foster father agreed that I should make the attempt. Unfortunately, he, along with the other counselors I did have, paid for their ignorance and my naïveté with their lives.”
Rhiann bowed her head, not wanting to think about their wasteful deaths, soaking and squeezing the cloth over and over again. Finally, Cade reached out a hand and gently took it from her. This time, she let him.
“I’m sorry,” Rhiann said again.
“And my mother?” Cade said. “How goes it with her?”
Now it was Rhiann’s turn to shake her head. “You’ve not seen her? Not since you were an infant?”
“No,” he said. “Not until today.”
Rhiann didn’t know what to say; how to begin or not begin. “I don’t know. She has never . . .” She paused and tried again. “I have lived with her my whole life and she showed more emotion in seeing you than I have ever seen from her. For the first time it occurs to me that she didn’t give you away, she gave herself. She sent you away and kept herself from you so that you might live.”
Cade stared past Rhiann at the fireless hearth and she followed his gaze. It was the beginning of February, but even so, not too chilly in the room, despite the recent rains. Rhiann supposed the guards would not have lit the fire anyway for fear of finding the fort burning down around them in the night. Then Cade flexed his large hands and Rhiann imagined him grasping a sword and wielding it. Even the heavier Saxon ones would give him little difficulty.
“Go now, and do not watch tomorrow. I would not have you see me . . .” He stopped and cleared his throat. “I’d prefer you didn’t see what happens to me tomorrow.”
Rhiann had been kneeling on the floor but now got to her feet, leaving the bowl and cloth in case he wanted them. “Shall I send for your mother?”
Cade didn’t answer. Rhiann let the silence lengthen and then turned to the door because it didn’t seem like he was going to respond. She knocked so the guard would let her out.
“No,” he said, finally. He remained sprawled in his original position on the floor.
Rhiann nodded. The guard opened the door to allow her to leave and then barred it behind her. The guard had once been one of Cadwallon’s men, long since retired from the field and now reduced to guarding his former lord’s son. He refused to meet her eyes, but spoke anyway.
“It’s best this way, miss,” he said.
“No, it isn’t.” The fierceness of before rose inside her again. “This is wrong. I can’t believe I’m the only one who sees it!”
The man shrunk under Rhiann’s attack, but before he could say anything more, Rhiann felt a step on the floorboards behind her. She turned to see Alcfrith watching them from the other end of the hall. Their eyes met and Alcfrith tipped her head towards the entrance to her room before entering it. She left the door ajar.
Hesitantly, Rhiann followed her into the room and shut the door.
“You’ve seen him?” Alcfrith said.
“Yes,” Rhiann said.
“Is he badly hurt?”
“He’s not much injured. Far less than I’d feared. He will certainly live long enough for Father to murder him.”
“As he murdered Cadwaladr’s father,” Alcfrith said.
“What? What did you say?” Rhiann said. “My father killed Cadwallon?”
Alcfrith turned to Rhiann with a blank stare, one that told Rhiann she was already so far gone in grief she didn’t see her—and perhaps her words had not been meant for Rhiann, but for the woman Alcfrith had been.
“You must save Cadwaladr,” she said, “and leave Aberffraw with him.”
“Me?” Rhiann said. “I’ve been struggling with how it might be possible since they brought him in, but I’m afraid it isn’t.”
“You have no future here,” Alcfrith said, ignoring Rhiann’s protest. “You’ve turned down all the men your father has brought for you to marry.”
“I couldn’t marry any of them,” Rhiann said. “They were all his allies. Every last one was old and evil. Did you see the teeth on Meurig of Rhiannt?”
Alcfrith shook her head. “Marriage could have been a way out of here for you. As it is, it’s too late. If you stay here, your father will force you to marry Peada, my brother’s son. He’s not a bad man, but no Christian.”
“I’ve already told father I won’t marry Peada,” Rhiann said. “The priest won’t let Father force me into it.”
“Peada is the ruler of Middle Anglia and King Penda’s son. When Peada comes for you, you will have no choice,” Alcfrith said. “He does not listen to priests.”
Rhiann’s stomach sank into her boots. All along she’d feared exactly that, even if she’d not admitted it to herself and had managed to defy her father up until now. Cadfael had known it too, undoubtedly. He’d taken the opportunity to punish Rhiann with public disgrace for her disobedience, but Rhiann had felt throughout it all that he’d been laughing at her, sure in his power over her future.
Every man he’d brought to Aberffraw to seek Rhiann’s hand had been Welsh, and thus subject to the restrictions of the Church. The Saxons, on the other hand, were pagans, bowing only to their gods and with no respect for the gods of others. They’d sacked churches and killed monks countless times. Of course, Cadfael’s men would have done the same to them, if they’d had churches.
The Welsh gods, the sidhe, were entirely different from the Saxon gods, with familiar names that didn’t grate on one’s ears: Arianrhod and Gwydion, children of Dôn; Llyr, god of the sea; Arawn, Lord of Annwn, the Underworld. Rhiann suspected that many of her father’s men, under their Christian guise, still believed in the old gods, keeping them close but hidden like a comfortable and faded shirt worn beneath a new and glossy coat of mail. Since the coming of the Christ, the sidhe had hidden themselves, no longer walking freely among their people. With each passing year, they retreated further into the mists and shadows of the high valleys and mountains.
“I hadn’t realized that my time was so short,” Rhiann said. “Father hasn’t said anything to me about it.” Her father claimed to be a Christian, but an alliance with a Saxon king was worth more to him than his religion. Or her.
“Why would he?” Alcfrith said. “You are a woman and your value is found in what he can sell you for, even at twenty and long past the point at which you should have married. You are his to do with as he pleases.” She turned her back on Rhiann, her head bowed. “Just as I am.”
Uncertain, Rhiann reached out a tentative hand and rested it on Alcfrith’s shoulder. Alcfrith took Rhiann’s hand in hers, turned back, and managed a half of a smile.
“I may not be able to save myself,” she said, “but I will not stand by to see either Cadwaladr or you lose your life, or your soul, at Cadfael’s hands.”
“I don’t know what to say.” Rhiann was stunned at Alcfrith’s frankness. “You’ve spoken more to me in these few moments than in my entire life.”
“I have clothes for you.” Alcfrith turned abruptly from Rhiann. She walked to a chest in the corner of the chamber and opened it. Inside were male garments—breeches, jersey and cloak—which Alcfrith brought out one by one and piled into Rhiann’s arms.
“Why are you doing this?” Rhiann said.
“I’ve never been a mother to you.” Alcfrith closed the lid to the chest and faced Rhiann again. “Neither to you nor to my son.”
“I never expected—”
“Well you should have!” Alcfrith said.
Startled, Rhiann took a step back.
“All your life until now you’ve held yourself cheaply, expecting nothing and receiving nothing,” Alcfrith said. “I treated you no different than your father did. I just couldn’t bear . . .” She paused.
Alcfrith took a deep breath and let it out. “You reminded me so much of Cadwaladr, even as an infant: so stubborn, so fiery, and yet so soft and warm in my arms. I couldn’t bear to hold you. As you grew—as you crawled and walked and talked—all I could see in you was my lost son.”
“You can see him now,” Rhiann said. “He’s right next door.”
“No.” Alcfrith shook her head. “I have no claim on him. He owes me nothing and I will not ask anything from him because he’d give it.”
Alcfrith was right. Rhiann had only spoken with Cade for the first time that evening and yet she already knew him well enough to know that what Alcfrith said was true. “Father’s not going to kill Cadwaladr,” Rhiann said, suddenly sure.
Alcfrith nodded. “I have a plan. God willing, you will take him out of here and never see me again. If Cadfael catches you, I will not be able to save either one of you.”
“I understand,” Rhiann said.
“You don’t have much time, cariad.”
Rhiann stared at her. Loved one, Alcfrith had called her, for the first time in her life. Alcfrith put a hand on each of Rhiann’s shoulders, pulled her into her arms for a brief hug, and then stepped back in order to look deep into Rhiann’s eyes.
“There is much you need to do,” Alcfrith said.
Sweet Mary, Mother of Christ. Do I dare?
Yet Rhiann did exactly as Alcfrith asked.