A stroll down Memory Lane, and a story. Karthik gets reassurances.
|“I must say, I did not expect either of you to come visiting so soon,” Gwenllian said brightly as Bleddyn and I sat at her trestle table, on the bench farthest from the hearth. Even so, the heat of the fire felt good after a day spent in a drafty barn, despite all frenzied activity Bleddyn and I had got up to to keep warm.
“We do not mean to show up unannounced, but we have some questions that we hope you may be able to answer,” Bleddyn said, covering my hand where it lay on the table, with his own. At the hearth, Gwenllian was stirring a pot of stew that smelled heavenly.
“Yes,” she said wryly, glancing over her shoulder with an equally wry smile. “I imagine you do.”
Looking into her eyes, wise and compassionate, and ancient compared to the rest of her, I knew she had answers. If not all of them, then some of them. I looked to Bleddyn, who was watching me thoughtfully. He smiled and made a gesture with his other hand that I should speak freely.
And suddenly, all my relevant questions flew out of my head. Sitting here, in the comfort of her small cottage, supper at the ready, I could’ve been bringing my boyfriend over to meet Dierdre, and the familiarity of this tableau disoriented me. So I opened my mouth and said the first thing that came tumbling out of my brain.
“Are you a witch?”
Bleddyn actually facepalmed—I didn’t even know that’d been invented before the age of the internet—I could see it out of the corner of my eye, and Gwenllian laughed again, her rich, throaty laugh.
“I’m a practitioner of the Old Ways, if that’s what you’re asking. If you define a witch as one who hearkens to the ways of the ancestors, then yes, I am a witch,” she said simply, still chuckling. Bleddyn, meanwhile, was staring at her, gape-mouthed and goggle-eyed. His hand around mine tightened.
“So, are you, like, a Wiccan? I mean, um—pagan, I guess?” I asked, despite the increasing tightness of Bleddyn’s hand. Gwenllian hefted the pot—which really looked like a small cauldron—and turned to face the table, and Bleddyn and I. She placed the pot on a flat stone in the center of the table, and I could feel the heat baking off of it, too. That rich smell—like mutton and vegetables in a savory sauce—grew stronger and my stomach rumbled pitifully.
Gwenllian smiled and put her hands on her hips. “I have many beliefs. Some align with that of the Christian church. Some do not. I do many things of which the Christian doctrine would approve. And I do many things of which it would not approve.” And here, her gaze touched on Bleddyn’s and my hands, linked together on her tabletop. “In that, at least, I am in good company, am I not?”
Bleddyn blanched, then blushed. But I found myself grinning. I liked her.
Gwenllian made her way to a small standing cabinet set next to the hearth and began retrieving bowls and spoons. She laid them out in front of Bleddyn and me, and on the other side of the trestle table, right in front of the hearth, set a place for herself.
While she was busy serving the stew—and fresh bread she magicked up from somewhere—I looked around her cottage. It was tiny and tidy, spacious despite the size. Beyond the trestle table and benches—a chair to the side of the hearth opposite the cabinet and, in the far corners, a bed and a garderobe—there wasn’t much to see. The floor was wooden—I’d expected it to be packed earth—and spotless, despite the rain. Bleddyn and I hadn’t tracked much in the way of mud, thanks to the paving stones leading up to the cottage.
There were lanterns and candles everywhere. Gwenllian liked her light. In this, she reminded me of Dierdre, for Dierdre was the polar opposite. She never tolerated more light than absolutely necessary. She was like a bat—could practically see in the dark. John was forever complaining about there never being enough light to see by when she was home. . . .
Sighing, I looked back at Gwenllian, to find her sitting across from me, watching me. Her gaze was sympathetic. “You miss your kith and kin,” she surmised, and I nodded, swallowing.
“I do,” I admitted, squeezing Bleddyn’s hand. “But I’ve found something here worth missing my friends for.”
She nodded, her eyes ticking between Bleddyn and I. “The love you share shines like a beacon, for the eyes that would see. Like a light-house across the darkest, most troubled seas. Neither tide nor time could keep you apart for longer than it took for the two of you to call out for each other, and in calling, find each other.”
Bleddyn and I looked at each other, wide-eyed. “So . . . Bleddyn is the reason I came back in time?”
“I told you I’d tell you, someday,” I said to Bleddyn as his eyes widened further. “I mean, it was just a guess, but it felt right. That you were the reason I came back.”
Shaking his head, Bleddyn’s brow furrowed. “If that is so, how did you manage to travel backwards in time to come to me? How did you even know there was a me to come back to?”
I shrugged and looked at Gwenllian, who was dipping a piece of bread into her stew. Bleddyn followed my gaze and together we waited for it. The answer to the most important question either of us would ever ask.
Gwenllian took a bite of her bread and chewed before answering. “He didn’t know. At least not on the top of his waking mind. But he knew in his heart. In his soul.” She frowned a little. “But it wasn’t Master Karthik’s will that pulled him back in time, Bleddyn, nor his need. At least, it was not only his need . . . it was also yours.”
“My need?” Bleddyn asked, startled. “But I have no talent for such . . . dire arts and feats of magic, Gweddw. How could I have pulled Karthik to me from his own time?”
Now, Gwenllian sighed and put her spoon down.
“Tell me, Master Bleddyn: What remember you about the day you found me near death? For in that tale lies the beginning of the answers you both seek.”
Looking surprised and wary, Bleddyn squeezed my hand and sighed, himself. “I recall everything, Gweddw.”
“On that day, as I lay, too weak to even tend my hearth and keep myself warmed—my husband dead in our bed for days while I lay nearby, insensate—you appeared as a guardian angel, and saved me from a certain death due to starvation and the lees of my illness.”
Bleddyn shook his head. “I was no guardian angel, Gweddw Robert. Merely a man sent on a mission by his lord. I did what any would have done,” he said lowly, looking down at his untouched stew. At my hand held tight in his.
“I would hear the tale, if you’re up for telling it,” I said softly, and Bleddyn looked at me in surprise. I smiled and scooted closer to him along the bench, till our thighs were touching. I figured Gwenllian wouldn’t mind and Bleddyn seemed like he might need that contact.
“I, too, would hear the tale,” Gwenllian added kindly, “for my memory of that time is scattered and imprecise. I, too, have questions about that day that could do with a spot of answering.”
His eyes ticking back and forth between Gwenllian and me, Bleddyn finally sighed again, and looked back at my hand held in his.
“It began,” he started slowly, somewhat gruffly. “With my father coming to find me while I was at practice with swordplay. He sent me on a small mission, on behalf of Lord John: to find Eirian Robert, who had not been attending his duties for some days.
“So I set out at mid-morning, shortly after my father told me what was needed. I rode through Gwydir Forest without incident, till at last I came upon Lake Ty n-y-mynydd, and the cottage thereon, from which came no chimney smoke, and no signs of life. . . .”
Bleddyn ap Rhys dismounted from his horse Arwel and, meaning to lead the horse to the barn, paused.
He was, when all was said and done, a man of instinct and action. At that moment, standing at the stone path that lead to the cottage, his instinct was shrilling at him that getting into the cottage was of more moment than seeing to Arwel’s comfort.
Patting Arwel on the side, Bleddyn left his horse at the foot of the path and made his way up its clean, smooth stones, to the door. He raised his hand to knock.
There was no sound coming from within the cottage, and his knock echoed emptily. Frowning, Bleddyn knocked again, this time calling: “Eirian? It is Lord John’s man, Bleddyn ap Rhys! I must speak with you!”
No answer. Nothing but the echoing of Bleddyn’s words and knocking.
Bleddyn put his hand on the latch and pushed it down. With a small creaking, the door opened, and immediately let out a smell that Bleddyn recognized, even though he was thankfully not familiar with it.
The smell of death.
He blinked, as his eyes adjusted to the dim, near light-less cottage. The first thing he could see and recognize was a body lying limply near the hearth. It was utterly still, and from its attire of calico dress and apron, was doubtlessly Gwenllian Robert.
Upon entering the cabin, into the miasma of death and decay, Bleddyn left the door open, and used the collar of his surcoat to cover his nose. Once he began moving toward the back of the small, one-room cottage, the smell grew so strong, even the surcoat was no help. But by then, Bleddyn had spotted the bed, and the body which lay on it.
Eirian ap Robert. Dead. Long dead.
And it didn’t take more than a moment of wondering to figure out what had happened, here, at this scene of bloodless death, with nothing apparent having been taken. With the sickness going around so fiercely this winter—Bleddyn, himself, had caught a fine case of it and been rendered as helpless as a wet kitten for many days—and Gwenllian Robert being on the front lines of the horrible malady, she had finally succumbed to it, herself. And Eirian had done the same.
Bowing his head for the soul of this good man and his wife, Bleddyn clasped his hand and began to pray. But before he was even a third of the way through his heartfelt prayer—Eirian had been a fine man, and his wife had, in her strange, somewhat off-putting way, had been a caring, kind, and selfless woman—he heard a feeble moaning coming from near the hearth, and Gwenllian Robert’s poor body.
“Eirian. . . .” a faint, cracking voice moaned and Bleddyn gasped, despite the smell, tuning to face the hearth and freezing instantly.
Gwenllian Robert’s body was moving. Barely . . . but moving. After the initial moment of shock, Bleddyn was moving quickly to Gwenllian’s side, kneeling next to her and brushing damp, lank dark hair from her face. Her skin was snow-white, but for hectic red spots at each cheek; her lips were dry and cracked, the tongue that came out to swipe them more grey than pink. Her eyes, normally a vibrant and canny green were unfocused and red.
“Eirian,” she sighed softly, her broken heart in her broken voice. “Don’t leave me. . . .”
“Hush, now,” Bleddyn said, taking her hand and squeezing it. It was small and clammy in his own, and it did not squeeze back. “It is Lord John’s man, Bleddyn ap Rhys.”
Gwenllian Robert blinked several times as if trying to focus her eyes, then squinted. “Bleddyn?”
“Where,” she began, then coughed weakly, closing her eyes. “Where is Eirian?”
Bleddyn swallowed and looked away. “He is . . . dead, Goody Robert . . . of the sickness. My sincerest condolences for your loss.”
Tired green eyes opened, shimmering with tears of confusion and incomprehension. “But . . . I just now saw him,” she croaked, the tears leaking out and down her pale face. “He was . . . hale and—and beautiful. Surrounded by light and . . . and my mother was there, also, and my grandmother. They were all so happy and . . . so young. . . .”
She moaned, closing her eyes again, and Bleddyn said nothing. According to Gwenllian Robert, herself, when first she’d arrived at Gwydir castle, her family was all years-dead.
Shaking his head, he let go of the weeping woman’s limp hand and stood. The first thing that needed to happen, he knew, was that she needed to be put to bed. A warm bed. And she needed it immediately.
“I will return,” Bleddyn told the grieving widow, and stepped over her, toward the hearth, where there was a small stack of wood and tinder—not much, but enough to ward off the pervasive chill of the cottage. Even in the dimness, Bleddyn could see his breath, and but for the lack of a cutting wind, could have been outside.
As he stacked the wood in the dead fireplace, he tried not to think about his next task: that of moving Eirian Robert’s body outside.
When Bleddyn stopped speaking, a silence fell, one that no one seemed to want to break until, with tears in her vivid green eyes, Gwenllian reached out and covered Bleddyn’s free hand with her own.
“Thank you,” she said softly, and Bleddyn looked up from his contemplation of our hands, his surprise easily readable. Gwenllian smiled. “For saving my life. For I surely would have followed my Eirian to the next life, were it not for you.”
Bleddyn frowned. “I only did what any would do in my stead. Verily, it was nothing more than I owed you for caring for me during my illness. You and Gwynedd saved my life. In truth, only half the debt I owe has been repaid,” he said somberly, and I squeezed his hand. When he looked at me I raised our hands and kissed them.
“I am only sorry that I did not arrive days earlier, that I might have saved him, too,” Bleddyn said lowly, and Gwenllian sighed.
“That is a guilt and regret that we both share, for I fell ill while caring for Eirian, and had I not—had I not myself succumbed to illness, he might still be alive,” she whispered, wiping her eyes.
I looked from her, to Bleddyn, and back to her, incredulous. “It’s not your fault. Either of you,” I said firmly, and they both turned miserable gazes to me. I blushed, but went on. “Listen, sometimes, bad things happen to good people. Sometimes, the, er, Lord works in mysterious ways. It was Eirian’s time to go. Nothing either of you could have done would have changed that. I don’t know much about your god, Bleddyn, or about yours, Gwenllian, but I do know that they supposedly have a plan, isn’t that right?” They both glanced at each other warily, and nodded. “Then Eirian’s death was a part of that plan. A terrible part—a sad part—but a part, nonetheless. No amount of healing or rescuing by either of you would have changed that.”
I held out my free hand to Gwenllian, and she took it with her free hand, which was still wet with her tears. And the three of us sat there, holding hands and sneaking glances at each other.
Finally Gwenllian squeezed both my hand and Bleddyn’s before letting go and standing up. She took her empty bowl to a large wash basin set on a stool. “I thank you, as well, Master Karthik.”
“Please, it’s just Karthik. And whatever for?” I asked, confused.
“For reminding me that I do not always have control over life and death. That sometimes, those things fall outside my purview.” Gwenllian’s gaze, when she looked over at me, was intense and still tear-filled. “Sometimes I forget that such things are, in the end, out of my hands, and given over to a will greater than my own.”
“Aye,” Bleddyn agreed pensively. Gwenllian’s gaze shifted to him and she smiled that wry smile. “And you, Master Bleddyn, like me, must remember that matters of love also often fall outside of our sphere of control. Do you take my meaning?”
Bleddyn’s eyes slid over to mine and he nodded. “I do, Gweddw.”
“Good. Now.” Gwenllian came back to the table and sat, her gaze darting between us solemnly. “Allow me tell you both a story.
“Once upon a time,” she began, and Bleddyn and I exchanged a glance. “Once upon a time, there was a brave and true young squire, who lived and worked in the service of a just and kind lord.
“One day, this squire came upon a deathly ill woman and her husband, who’d been laying for many days in their cottage. There was nothing the squire could do for the woman’s husband, for he had been dead for several days, and his wife was to shortly join him . . . but for the tender care of the squire, who nursed her until she was well enough to for him to venture out. He found another Goodwife with healing hands to come to care for her. And when he was certain that the ill woman was responding to the Goodwife’s gentle care he returned to his lord’s service and his duties, without accepting a word of thanks, saying only that he had done his duty, and that if the situation had been reversed, he’s certain the woman and her husband would have done the same for him and his kin.”
Gwenllian paused and frowned down at the pot, which still steamed gently on the table.
“It was many weeks before the woman was strong enough to properly grieve for her husband. For she had never been sick once in her life, and in one fell swoop, this illness seemed bound and determined to make up for lost time. But once her enervation had passed enough for her to pay a visit to the castle where the good lord lived, she did, riding her late husband’s horse early one morning and bearing with her a small token of thanks to present to the young squire.
“He agreed to see her, though it was obviously with some apprehension that he did. And the woman could see on the squire’s face that he bore the same guilt that she bore—the guilt of not having done enough or come soon enough to save an innocent life. . . .
“It so touched her heart that, eschewing the small token of her thanks, the first thing she said to him, as they stood in the lord’s front hall, was: ‘If you could be granted one boon, and one boon only—if you could be granted the thing you desire most, what would you have?’
“The young squire frowned, puzzlement showing clearly on his austere face. ‘A boon?’ he asked quietly. ‘Such as money or fine things?’
“Smiling, the woman tilted her head and regarded him for long moments before speaking. ‘If,’ she answered, ‘that is what you desire most, from the bottom of your heart.’
“And as she spoke, the squire’s face changed—lost the guilt it had worn and reflected instead a different guilt . . . heavier and deeper. Mixed with a yearning so great and terrible, it hurt the woman’s heart. For she had known this feeling for many weeks. The feeling of having lost what one has loved most, to circumstances one could not control.
“The squire looked away from her for a brief time, composing himself before replying. When he spoke, his voice was hard, but underneath that hardness was desperation and grief as plain as daylight.
“’What boon would I have, if I could have what I desire most?’ he asked of himself, though aloud. Then he smiled, also to himself, before looking at the woman again and saying. ‘If I could have any boon, it would be to be rid of my . . . abiding affliction.’
“’I see,’ the woman murmured, staring not only at the squire, but into him. And much she saw there . . . much, indeed. ‘And what affliction would that be?’
“And the squire opened his mouth to answer . . . for a moment, anyway. Then he looked around at the busy front hall, and back at the woman.
“’This is neither the time nor the place to speak of such things. Nor are you my father-confessor, to lift from me the burden of my own sinful doings and yearnings,’ he said, his face turning as hard as his voice, so that the woman could no longer divine what he was feeling. ‘I thank you for your visit, Gweddw, but I must return to my duties.’
“And he would have turned and walked away, then, but for the woman’s hand on his arm, light, yet entreating.
“’I will do my best to aide you in getting whatsoever . . . or whosoever it is you desire, Bleddyn ap Rhys. This I swear on my honor and on my late, beloved husband.’
“The squire shook his head once in negation. ‘You cannot. You should not, Gweddw.’
“’And why should I not if, indeed, I can?’
“Because . . . the boon I would have, would be sinful and wrong. It would lead to nothing good.’
“’And how do you know this?’
“’Because it already has led to nothing good!’
“At this, the woman’s hand fell away from the squire’s arm. ‘Love, if that is what you desire, ultimately leads us to good things. It may take time, but love always leads us right, if felt truly and unconditionally.’ She stepped closer to the squire and spoke so quietly, none could have heard them. ‘And did you? Love truly and unconditionally?’
“The squire blinked, and there were tears in his eyes. But he blinked again and they were gone. He squared his shoulders and looked the woman in the eyes. ‘I did,’ he said. And the woman nodded.
“’You have my word then, Bleddyn ap Rhys, that you will have the deepest desire of your heart. I cannot promise when, but I can promise that you will. Even if it takes my life to accomplish, I will devote nothing less to repayment of my debt.’
“The squire shook his head. ‘*Wyt ti wrach?’ he asked her lowly, clearly torn between intrigue and horror . . . art thou a witch?
“’For I will have no part in any devilment,’ he went on to say, almost fearfully. At this, the woman smiled and inclined hear head respectfully.
“’No devilment, you have my word. And I must have yours: that you will continue to hold in your heart that love you feel, even though it pains you to do so. Hold on to that love, and to hope. For someday, that which you desire so strongly and passionately—‘”
“—will come back to you,” Bleddyn finished with Gwenllian, both their eyes ticking to me. I merely sat there—myself wide-eyed—as they stared, Gwenllian with no small amount of pride and Bleddyn with no small amount of confusion.
“So, your heart’s desire was for a bitchy, time-traveling, Indian guy from four hundred years in the future and five thousand miles away to come keep you company?” I quipped. Bleddyn raised his eyebrows.
“Not quite.” He blushed and looked down, frowning. “I had thought my heart’s desire so clear, so certain. And yet—“
“And yet?” I asked, frowning myself. “What . . . what was your heart’s desire?”
Bleddyn looked up at me, but didn’t answer. But then, he didn’t need to. Of course, he didn’t. Who else would be his heart’s desire, but William?
And since William had been Bleddyn’s first—and Bleddyn’s First—I didn’t even have the right to be jealous. Nor should I have been. Not of a ghost.
But should and would were two different beasts, entirely.
“I’m sorry you didn’t get him back,” I said softly, and I meant it. I couldn’t imagine, now, losing Bleddyn, then, years later, being presented with a placeholder . . . a substitute. My heart would rail against such a thing. Even if I found myself growing fond of the substitute, I would always wonder what-if about the love I’d lost. . . .
Bleddyn lifted my hand and laced our fingers together, searching my eyes.
“I, for the first time in so many years, am not,” he said simply, and when my jaw dropped, Bleddyn smiled. “I loved William dearly. And I always will. But that time in my life is over, the time for William and I to be together, is over. And that was, as you said, a part of God’s plan that I had no control over. It is true that in my heart, I’ve always wished for William back. But the good Lord, in his infinite wisdom, has sent me the second treasure of my life. Many people do not see even once in their lives, a love like that which I have felt twice, now. I could have spent the rest of my life mourning William and what I lost. But instead, thanks to the grace of God—and His divine inspiration of Gwenllian Robert, and her part in this—I will choose to spend the rest of my life thanking Him for and taking care of what I now have.”
I shook my head, looking down to hide the tears that had sprung up in my eyes. “You don’t have to say that. Not if you don’t mean it. Not if who you’ve really been wanting is William. . . .”
Bleddyn caught my chin and tilted it up till I was looking him in the eyes. His own were shining and slightly red.
“All that I want,” he whispered, “is you.”
“Will always have a place in my heart. But he’s my past, now. And you . . . you, **ngoleuni fy nghalon, are my present and my future. I love you, Karthik. I beg of you to never doubt this, above all else.”
I turned my face away. I could see Gwenllian watching us out of the corner of my eye, and blushed. I wondered what she must have thought of us, hashing this out in front of her like she wasn’t even there. But even that only danced briefly across the surface of my mind. The matters at hand, such as the tenancy of Bleddyn’s heart, took precedence. “I don’t know if I can,” I admitted, sighing heavily.
Bleddyn turned my head back firmly, but gently, till we were looking into each other’s eyes again. He was smiling a little, once more. “Then it is fortuitous, is it not, my love, that I have the rest of our lives to prove to you that I’m sincere in my plight?”
MY jaw dropped again, and I didn’t know what to say. I certainly hadn’t expected what, in my time, would have been a proposal of marriage. Or at least the pledging of a lifetime to be spent together. “Bleddyn, I. . . .”
“Yes, you are. You’re everything I have wished for in my heart. Everything I desire. Everything I need. ***Rwy'n caru thi.” Bleddyn’s smile was a full one, now, and he leaned in slowly to kiss me, never minding that we weren’t alone. When his mouth touched mine, I actually whimpered, instantly parting my lips to give him access. Which he immediately took advantage of, his tongue tickling mine as he explored my mouth in a leisurely fashion, his body hitching closer to mine on the bench.
And as he kissed me, as his body pressed against my own, I found that my fears didn’t vanish, so much as get the volume turned down. I could accept that Bleddyn loved me—perhaps differently than he’d loved William, for after all, who loves any loves like they love their first love?—and that having his heart’s desire very loosely translated into me wasn’t going to be keeping him up nights. At least not in a bad way.
But then, there were my other questions, which, as Bleddyn carefully explored the area behind my tonsils, came rushing back. Questions about the mechanics of time travel, and the mysterious fog I’d stumbled through (and which, I was certain, had to do with me coming back in time). Questions of why then . . . why had the magic spell or whatever chosen that moment to suck me back to 1626? Was it simply because I’d been in Wales at that time? What would’ve happened if I hadn’t been? Would it have sucked back any old shmoe to be with Bleddyn? Or was it destined to be . . . me? If so, why? What was it that drew Bleddyn's and my souls together, so?
Was there any chance that I’d be sucked back to my own time, the next time it got foggy out? Indeed, was there any chance I could go back? Any way I could . . . Summon the fog that had brought me here, just in case things went South with Bleddyn in a way that couldn’t be fixed?
All these questions and more weighed so heavily on my mind . . . at least until Bleddyn’s arms wrapped around me and he pulled me close, breaking the kiss just enough to murmur: “I love you, ****ngoleuni fy nghalon,” on my lips. Then we were in meltdown again, my own arms winding around his neck as his hands settled on the small of my back.
This time, the kiss did the trick. The questions receded to the back of my mind where they were shelved, but not forgotten. Eventually Bleddyn and I would have to come up for air, and when we did, I now had an entire arsenal of questions for the Widow Robert.
And I meant to have my answers, no matter what they were.
*Art thou a witch?
**Light of my heart.
***I love thee.
****Light of my heart.