This is a retelling of a story from the Mabinogion, a collection of old Welsh tales and myths.
In the lee of the well, Branwen crouched. She pursed her lips and whistled at the mockingbird. It flicked its long tail up and down, hopped two steps toward her and one away, its head turned sideways. She whistled again. It hopped nearer to the crumbs she had laid for it.
“Alas for Branwen the White, who suffers every day,” she sang to the mockingbird. “Alas for Branwen the White, who suffers every day. Alas for Branwen the White, who...” A shadow fell on them and the mockingbird fled. Branwen seized her bucket, shoulders hunched against the blows. But it was only a goat passing by.
She breathed deeply to steady her hands and hurried back to the kitchens.
“Lazy slut,” the under-cook said as usual. “Go throw these scraps to the hogs.”
“Braaaaaaaan-wen. Braaaaaaaan-wen. Braaaaaaaaaaan-wen.” The castle boys followed her across the courtyard. “Branwen the Whi-ite. Branwen the Whi-ite.” She lifted her head and did not look.
What difference did it make if they splattered her with mud? Her white samite, brought from pagan lands and sewn with silver thread, was ruined long ago. Pig mud, goat muck, kitchen grease, yard dirt, chicken scratch, stale beer, candle tallow, cow’s blood, deer’s blood, boar’s blood, the blood of her wedding night. Stains upon stains, layers of filth.
She longed for hot water, dreamed of it. Some days she thought she could endure everything else, if just once she could take off the chafing rags and immerse herself in warmth. Even cold water would do.
She dreamed of water often. She dreamed of the hot water, steaming with sweet and fertile herbs that filled the tub on her wedding day. She dreamed of the white water around the prow of the ship that carried her away from Britain. She dreamed of the dark water at the bottom of the well.
She started before dawn, and until dusk she worked in the yards. All the filthiest jobs were hers. But at dusk she stopped.
“Go on with you.” The cook handed her the huge pitcher of beer. “Get in.”
Branwen straightened her bent shoulders. Before the hall doors, she closed her eyes and remembered. The gold crown with the rock crystal and lapis, the emeralds and agate, the chalcedon as big as the knuckle on her father’s thumb settled around her brow. The earrings of garnet and gold swung against her shoulders, and the twisted gold pressed her collar bone.
“I am Branwen the White, rightful queen of this people. Daughter of kings. Sister of kings. I will be the mother of kings.” She said it again, as she did every night.
“Where is she? Where is my lovely wife?” He called from the hall, drunk already. The hunt had ended early today.
She schooled her face to be grave, unafraid as her mother had taught her. She looked each one of them in the eye as she walked the length of the King’s hall. Some pinched her. Others pushed her away. None pitied her.
“Hurry up woman,” he roared from the great chair in the center of the table. “Move your royal ass.” His latest doxy smirked at her from the crook of his arm. She wore the woven girdle of white horsehair that Branwen had brought in her dower chest. It should have been a gift for her first child, a girdle for a girl, a sword belt for a boy.
“Feh, my lord, she stinks,” the woman said and wriggled against him. Had she ever thought the women of this place would pity her?
“Not like you, my pretty little mare.” He fondled his woman, but his eyes were fixed on Branwen.
He waited until she was done before he kicked her. His boot heel crunched against her hip. She fell backwards, but she kept the pitcher. If it was broken she would be beaten more. He kicked her again and spat.
“That for the Island of the Mighty. Tell your brother, when next you see him.” He drank to the general laughter of the hall.
She rose, bowed to the King, her husband. She could not help the limp, but her head was high. As she went she heard the laughter in the hall at home. Her brother Bran was a merrier drunk. He gave lavish gifts and told rude stories. He laughed at other’s pranks, even when he should have frowned. They had all laughed at the wedding feast.
There had been more laughter on the passage to Ireland. But she had seen the looks, the nudges and the lowered brows. She heard the whispers, “The Briton bitch. Fair payment, my ass.”
He had listened to them, her husband and her King. They told him the Kings of Britain and Wales were laughing up their sleeves, that he had been too easily bought off. They told him that his honor was gone, bought with a piece of British flesh any sailor could have had.
What could she have said to that? I am the fairest treasure of Dyfed and London. My brothers wept to see me go. They would not have parted with me for anyone less than a king. True, but meaningless.
In her dark corner of the kitchen, Branwen plotted. Tomorrow she would put out more crumbs. The bird would listen longer. “Alas for Branwen the White, who suffers every day.” Tomorrow and the next day and the next, she would sing to it. The next day and the next day after that and the day after...
In her sleep she smiled. The mockingbird sang its new song over the isles, grey tail flicking through the sunlight. “Alas for Branwen the White, alas for Branwen the White, alas for Branwen the White.” Her brother, grown god-sized with anger waded through the seas, his mace held above the waves. White froth churned about his thighs and the fleets of the Britons came behind. “Alas for Branwen the White.” Sing, little bird.
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About the Author
Sarah Adams teaches medieval literature at Azusa Pacific University, writes fantasy, and is very patient with editors who ask her for her bio mere moments before they publish her stories.
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Copyright © 2009, Sarah Joy Adams. All Rights Reserved.