I gazed around me, at this realistic rendition of a medieval castle and environs. . . .
|Gwydir “Castle” wasn’t really much of one.
It was more like a fortified manor house, two stories of stone and sprawling. And as we rode into a muddy courtyard (which I could smell, and it wasn’t pretty) I gazed around me, wide-eyed, at this ultra-realistic rendition of a medieval castle and environs.
There were actors around, “working,” though who-all they were working for was beyond me, since I didn’t spot a single person who looked like a tourist. No one dressed like me. Everyone was dressed in their period outfits and occupied with period duties.
But that didn’t stop them from double-taking when they saw me, reflecting my own gape back at me.
“Your friends are all staring at me,” I whispered to Bleddyn, whose hand had migrated from my arm to my waist during our ride, and stayed there.
“You are strangely dressed and obviously a foreigner to these lands,” he said, by way of explanation and I laughed, a tad nervously.
“Sir, your sweet words of flattery will completely turn my head, if you’re not careful.”
For a moment, Bleddyn stiffened behind me. Then he was stopping his horse near what could only be the stables, and swinging down with the ease of long practice.
I looked down at him and he looked up at me.
“Fear not for your safety, Karthik of Nayar, for you will find naught but friends, here,” Bleddyn finally said, holding out his hand. I searched his serious eyes and nodded, taking the offered hand. Bleddyn helped me down, and after a boy of about twelve came to take his horse, we made our way in the squelching mud to the “castle.”
It all looks—and smells—so real, I thought as I limped, with Bleddyn’s assistance, into the castle, garnering more stares as I went. It was really starting to grate on me.
“Look, Bleddyn, you’ve been great, helping me and all, but can you just take me straight to a phone so I can call 999 or something? I’m really starting to worry about my friends,” I said as we made slow progress down the front hall of Gwydir Castle. It was all damp, but clean stone, tapestries and ancient, yet new-looking furniture I couldn’t put a name to.
They’d really out-done themselves, whoever set all this up.
Bleddyn hitched my arm more firmly across his shoulders and tightened his arm around my waist. “I know not what a phone is, Karthik-lad, but if your companions are a-lost in the Forest, my lord may be willing to send out a party of men to search for them.”
I rolled my eyes. “Okay, you get an A for effort and acting ability, but isn’t it time to stop this Ren-Faire baloney and just talk like a normal person?”
Bleddyn frowned and opened his mouth to answer, but at that moment, a voice hailed Bleddyn from down the long hall. It belonged to a tall man wearing mail armor similar to Bleddyn’s, but for the lack of helm. His dark hair, beard, and mustache were shot through with grey. He approached swiftly, the jingle of his armor loud in the cavernous hall. As he drew closer, his eyes ticked to me, then back to me, widening as he took me in.
He demanded something of Bleddyn in Welsh and Bleddyn’s arm tightened around me again.
“This is Karthik of Nayar. He was lost in the Forest and injured himself,” Bleddyn said in English, for my benefit, I imagined. The man who’d greeted him so harshly sneered at me as Bleddyn went on. “He was separated from his traveling companions while in search of the Great Road.”
“And what, pray tell, were ye doing on Lord Wynn’s land?” The man asked me suspiciously, and in a far thicker, even more antiquated version of English than Bleddyn’s. “Poaching?”
“What? No, I wasn’t—look, I appreciate your dedication to realism and everything, but this is getting out of hand!” I exclaimed, standing straighter and leaning less on Bleddyn. “Can you guys all just cut the crap and let me use a phone, for God’s sake? I need to get back to my friends so we can get the Hell out of here, and back to Cardiff before anything else crazy happens to us!”
Now the man was frowning. “Caerdyf, mean ye? And what be ye’re business there?”
I found myself getting defensive. I didn’t like his tone, the way he’d spoken to Bleddyn, or the way he kept glancing at Bleddyn’s arm around my waist with that look of suspicion increasing, as well as burgeoning disgust.
“My business there,” I began with poisoned patience. “Is leaving this awful country as soon as humanly possible! It’s been one thing after another since the day we got here! I just want to get back to Heathrow, and from there, catch my flight back to the U.S., and pretend I never came here! If that’s alright with you!”
“Ye’re impertinent, lad,” the man noted grimly, ignoring almost everything I’d just said. “Has nane thought to teach ye proper respect for yer betters?”
“Father,” Bleddyn started before I could show this jerk what real disrespect was. Then I was glancing between the two men in shock. Father? “He is exhausted and injured, and among strangers after being lost in the forest. Surely he may be excused his impertinence and extended the hospitality of the castle?” Bleddyn cleared his throat. “I have promised him at least that.”
“That was not yer promise t’make, Bleddyn.” The man glared down his long nose at me—of course they were father and son . . . they had the same ski-slope nose, though this man’s nose was crooked in the other direction. But they had that same grim look about their dark eyes, not to mention the way their brows furrowed—and sighed with great irritation. Then he was turning on his heel and walking away. “I’ll let the baronet know we’re to have a . . . guest.”
“My thanks, father,” Bleddyn called after the man’s rapidly disappearing back. Then he was helping me walk again, taking the same route down the hall his father had taken.
“He seems like a swell guy,” I muttered.
“Please excuse his . . . bluntness. Such is the manner of soldiers,” Bleddyn said, sounding rather nonplussed. I shrugged, and didn’t say that I thought his father was simply a bore of the first water. We limped along in silence for a minute before I could think of anything to say.
“Um. Where’re you taking me, now?” I asked wearily, my hopes of finding a phone and help dwindling with each labored, aching step I took.
“To a bathing room, where you may make yourself more presentable for his lordship.” Bleddyn replied as we turned off into a stairwell. A long and winding one, that made me sigh. We began to climb. “You look to be approaching my cousin in stature, and I am certain his clothing will fit you.”
“But if I’m wearing his clothes, then what will your cousin wear?” I snarked, and Bleddyn was silent a moment before speaking.
“William is dead,” was all he said, without inflection, and I gaped. Either Bleddyn ap Rhys was the best actor in the world, or I’d just stuck my foot in it without even trying.
The latter being a common enough occurrence, I hung my head. “I’m . . . so sorry, Bleddyn. I didn’t mean—”
“It . . . was a long time ago. He rests, now, in the arms of the Savior. The time of grieving for William is done,” Bleddyn said, also inflectionlessly, and I wisely refrained from asking why, if that was the case, Bleddyn still kept William’s clothes.
This was, I’d decided, not a Ren-Faire or tourist trap, after all, but some sort of cult or sect, like the Amish, that lived like it was the 1600s.
These people weren’t actors, they were really living this squalid, no electricity, no running water, let’s-ride-horseys kind of life. And the only explanation that fit was that this was a bunch of people hearkening back to their medieval roots.
I may not have seen it, but I was sure there had to be weirder sects out there.
Bleddyn lead me to a bathing room that contained several wooden tubs, and asked me to wait there, while he went to retrieve William’s old clothes.
So, leaning against a wall near the door, I waited. And eventually the door opened and in came several women, each bearing two buckets of steaming water that I wouldn’t have been able to lift two at a time. I blushed, when the last one came in and put her buckets down, looking me over.
She had a matronly air about her, and blonde hair escaped from her bonnet in wisps and strands.
“Ye must be the Spanish lad Bleddyn found wandering the Forest,” she asserted, arms akimbo on ample hips. She, like everyone else I’d seen in this place, was dressed in period clothes, her homespun calico dress topped by a pristine white apron.
“I must be,” I sighed, not bothering to correct her. She smiled, showing three missing teeth, and gave me a keen once-over.
“Ye’re a handsome one! But don’t you go stealin’ the hearts of my girls!” she admonished, only half-joking. My eyebrows shot up and I snorted.
“Yeah, you don’t actually have to worry about that,” I said dryly.
“Hmph!” The woman turned and began directing the others to empty their buckets into one of the wooden tubs—shooing me away when I offered to help.
So, I found myself leaning against the wall again, when Bleddyn came back, sans his armor—without which he seemed less bulky and more wiry—and carrying folded clothes not so different from what he was wearing: a pullover grey tunic and trousers, both somewhat faded, probably from washing.
He actually smiled when he saw me, and it transformed the harsh planes of his face. Surrounded by a corona of dark, slightly flattened curls, his face looked younger than I’d initially thought. Almost boyish, especially with those smudges of dirt on it.
“Uh,” I said intelligently, taking the clothes he was offering and blushing. “Thank you.”
“You are most welcome, Karthik.” Bleddyn’s smile widened, showing off teeth that were a little crooked, but clean, and all there. “I’ll, erm . . . I suppose I shall leave you to your bathing.”
Or you could join me, I thought, but again refrained from saying. I didn’t know how it’d go over, and even if I had, I couldn’t pull of a line like that to save my life. Not even as a joke. “O-okay, Bleddyn. But, um, when I’m done, do I just wait here for you?”
Sketching a shallow bow, Bleddyn nodded once. “I will return at the chiming of the great clock in the hall, for that is when supper will be served.”
“So that gives me . . . almost an hour?” The clock had chimed once already, as we were climbing the stairs. I figured even I, prima donna that I could be, could repair the damage wandering around the ass-end of the U.K. had done.
“Supper with his lordship is at half-six. It is now ten past.”
“You mean I have twenty minutes?!” I groaned and ran my hands through my hair. Just then, the women who’d brought in the hot water hustled out of the room, including the matronly woman, who winked at me as she was going. As she passed, she grabbed Bleddyn’s arm and tugged him after her. The door shut behind them, and I was alone in the bathing room.
“Fuck my life,” I said to absolutely no one. Then I was hurrying out of my dirty clothes.
Once clean—as clean as I could get myself in twenty minutes, anyway . . . though I didn’t do too bad a job, what with all the hot water, the washrag, and a huge chunk of brown soap—I opened the door to the bathing room and limped into the cool air of the hall. Bleddyn was there waiting for me, leaning against the wall opposite the door. He looked up when I came out and smiled again. Cue my heart beating faster in a way I was not exactly thrilled about, considering.
“You look . . . well,” Bleddyn said, looking me up and down. I blushed and tugged on the waist of the button-up trousers. The clothes were the right length, though a bit loose on me.
“Thank you. I mean—for the bath and the clothes,” I fumbled out, running a hand over my damp hair—which was just long enough to ring the water out of with my hands—and grinning anxiously. “I feel much better . . . even my ankle. It’s like my mother always said, there’re few things in life a good, hot bath can’t cure.”
“She sounds like a wise woman,” Bleddyn said approvingly and I laughed.
“She thinks so, at any rate.” But I nonetheless felt a pang of homesickness so great it nearly swallowed me whole. I missed my mother after only six weeks. Missed the U.S. Hell, I even missed John and Dierdre, in that moment.
Bleddyn frowned. “You are upset?”
“No, no, I just—I’m worried, I guess. About my friends.”
“I have already spoken briefly with his lordship about your companions and he is willing to begin a search of the Gwydir Forest for them on the morrow, after sunrise.”
Ecstatic, I whooped and threw my arms around Bleddyn, hugging him tight. “Oh, thank you, thank you!” I said into his hard shoulder, so relieved I didn’t even care that I was embracing a near-stranger. Bleddyn, for his part, hugged me back after a moment, for a moment, then cleared his throat and let me go almost reluctantly. When he stepped back, he was blushing so deeply, he looked like a beet.
“It is not my generosity, but his lordship, the baronet’s,” Bleddyn said quietly, not meeting my eyes.
“Maybe. But you’re the one who talked him into it—admit it,” I said, chuckling, and linking my arm through his. Together, we began to hobble down the hall, but it was definitely a faster hobble than I’d been capable of half an hour ago. I cautiously upgraded the status of my ankle from possibly broken to badly-sprained.
Things were, at last, finally starting to look up.
The baronet’s personal dining room was windowless, but relatively cozy, with dark, baroque furniture and a fully set table with food already awaiting us.
At the edges of the room stood serving women, and when we entered, his lordship was already seated at the head of the table and awaiting us. Also seated at the midsized table, was the man I recognized as Bleddyn’s father, and several other men of varying ages.
Everyone stood when Bleddyn and I entered, and I let go of his arm. He glanced at me and bowed to the baronet and I copied him, despite the unhappiness of my ankle with the motion.
“Good evening, Bleddyn, and young Master Karthik,” his lordship said, smiling. He had a keen, clever face, white hair, and bright blue eyes. He reminded me of my PoliSci professor back in college, who’d always fostered more questions than he answered—and on purpose.
“Good evening, my lord,” Bleddyn said, and again I copied him, and bowed once more for good measure. The baronet smiled again, as did a younger man to his right, with the same bright blue eyes, and dark blond hair.
Another father and son, I surmised, then added: And brother, when I noted the young man to the right of father and son bore the same blue eyes, but dark brown hair. He was frowning quizzically.
“Sup with us, will you, lads?” the baronet asked, waving at the two unclaimed seats to the left of his own.
With a hand placed lightly on the small of my back, Bleddyn guided me to the chair immediately next to his lordship. After bowing again—just in case—I sat.
“So, Master Karthik, Rhys tells me you are from Spain,” Baronet Wynn said to me when the table had resumed its talking and the women had begun to serve food. Dinner appeared to be mutton, vegetables in gravy, and fresh-baked bread . . . along with giant steins of some sort of alcohol that I could smell before my server poured it.
“Uh,” I said, watching the brown liquid fill my stein with trepidation. Would I be expected to finish it? Or would a few sips for politeness do? “I’m actually from the United States of America,” I hoped against hope his lordship, at least, would recognize the name. But from the curious look he gave me, it was clear that he didn’t. “Um. From very far away. I’m not, Spanish, though. I’m actually Indian—”
“Ah, from the East Indies! Of course!” The baronet leaned in, his interest genuinely peaked, as far as I could tell.
“Well, my parents were. They left when they were my age.” I blushed, feeling Bleddyn’s gaze on me, just as curious as Baronet Wynn’s. “But they used to tell me stories about growing up in Kannur, and the places they used to travel to in Kerala State. It’s a beautiful place, filled with history and monuments and . . . uh, stuff.”
I fell silent, thinking of my parents—of my father, dead of a heart attack at forty-three, and my mother, still alive, but so far from me, now.
For the first time, I began to wonder if I’d ever see her again.
Of course I will! This is just a bump in the road! It certainly won’t last forever! I thought nervously, glancing at Bleddyn, who smiled reassuringly, as if he knew what I was thinking. On the table, his hand brushed my own briefly before he picked up his stein and drank a few long swallows.
“And your missing companions . . . are they from the East Indies, as well?” his lordship asked, and I turned my attention away from the intriguing sight of Bleddyn swallowing.
“Um, no. John and Dierdre are both from the United States, like me. But John’s family is originally from Italy, and Dierdre—I think her family’s mostly Irish,” I said uncertainly, wondering what they were doing right now. They were probably worried about me. I’d been gone for at least two hours.
Or perhaps they hadn’t even noticed how long I was gone, and were using this unexpected alone time to get . . . reacquainted. It’d been weeks since they’d been together without me along as a third wheel. They were probably fogging up their tent, having forgotten all about the tag-along.
The thought should have made me irritated, but instead I fought not to smile.
The baronet was watching me and one still-dark eyebrow quirked half-way to his white hairline. “Something amuses you, Master Karthik?”
“Just . . . thinking about my friends, my lord,” I murmured, looking down at my mutton. I tried to muster up an appetite, but couldn’t quite, even though everything smelled delicious. “I . . . miss them. And I’m worried for them.”
The baronet patted my hand. “Do not worry overmuch, Master Karthik. If indeed your companions are out there, we will find them, and reunite you all.”
And for some reason, with the baronet to my right and Bleddyn to my left, I felt . . . reassured.
After supper, Everyone except Bleddyn and I retired to the baronet’s office.
He and I limped down the drafty hall in an expectant silence. His arm was around my waist again, and it felt nice enough that I didn’t mention that my ankle felt better and that his assistance wasn’t needed.
“Where am I to stay for the night?” I asked, sliding a hesitant, nervous arm around his shoulders.
Bleddyn smiled a little. “His lordship has given you a guest bedroom on the this floor. That is where I am I taking you, now.”
“I see . . . and, uh, where do you sleep?”
Bleddyn blinked over at me, seeming surprised. I looked away just as he started to turn that deep, beet-red again.
“I take my rest with the men in the barracks,” Bleddyn said slowly, thoughtfully. “I had thought that Lord Wynn would quarter you with us, but he has been most gracious to you.” Bleddyn and I turned right at an intersection and he helped me to the first door on the left of this shorter arm of the corridor. “This is the guest room he has allotted you.”
And with that, Bleddyn opened the door.
The room was small by non-Welsh cult standards, and didn’t have a window, but it had a high, narrow four-post bed complete with drapes, a giant piece of furniture that might have been a guarderobe (it looked like it was a place for storing one’s clothes, anyway), a small table with a basin of fresh water and an ewer on it, and a small chest at the foot of the bed. There was a many-colored tapestry adorning the wall across from the door, though I couldn’t quite make out what it was depicting.
On the small night table on the right side of the bed was a lamp, burning low, and the bed itself was turned down rather invitingly. I opened my mouth to speak and a yawn came out. Bleddyn laughed.
“I see that the room meets with your approval,” he noted wryly, and I laughed, too.
“It’s been a very long day,” I agreed as we walked into the room, Bleddyn leading the way through the narrow doorway. “It’s not every day I get lost in the back woods of Wales, and stumble across, uh . . . what do you guys call yourselves?”
Bleddyn helped me to the bed and I sat gratefully. The look on his face was puzzled, however. “What do we call ourselves? Welshmen.”
I smiled. “No, I mean the name of your sect.”
“Yeah, I mean—the people who live the way you do, like the year’s 1614, instead of 2014? Surely you must have a name for yourselves.” I tugged on Bleddyn’s arm and he obligingly sat next to me on the bed.
“We are Lord Wynn’s men, and that is the only other name we go by. As to the year, it is not sixteen hundred and fourteen,” Bleddyn said, chuckling. I scooted a bit closer to him and chuckled, too.
“Of course, it’s not.”
“It is the year of our Lord, sixteen hundred and twenty-six,” Bleddyn said calmly, and in the act of nodding along with him, I froze.
“Um,” I finally said, laughing. But Bleddyn wasn’t laughing with me, merely watching me as if I was something both interesting and mystifying.
“1626?” I asked, and he nodded.
“Spring is upon us early,” he added with great satisfaction, and with such a straight face, I began to chuckle again. And again, Bleddyn didn’t join me, only watched me quizzically.
And I realized, in that moment, that it was entirely possible that he hadn’t been joking.