Morwith had grown up knowing that if you spent the night on Cadair Idris and survived to wake again, the giant Idris might gift you with divine inspiration from poetry when you woke– or you might go mad in the night.
The thing that no one had ever mentioned, as far back as she could remember, was that both could happen.
She'd lived, that was the thing. When the fingers of the wind, brought alive and made vicious by magic, reached into her chest and tried to tear out her heart, she'd remained silent and stiff. When Gwynn ap Nudd rode with his hounds through the sky, seeking human prey, she had been unafraid. She hadn't bolted from the mountain and incited them to chase, or pled for mercy; she'd remained still and stroked the dogs' ears. When the hills had rose up from the rock and danced the steps to some ancient, forgotten ceremony, Morwith had clung to the peak and refused to be moved from the blanket she'd lay down on at dusk.
She'd lived. She'd endured. She hadn't so much as cried out through it all. So it seemed entirely unfair that she could still have failed, that she might have failed forever, and that when she woke up she was mad.
Morwith hadn't noticed at first, and that was so ridiculous that she hoped it wasn't true, that she hadn't gone mad at all. She'd woken with the words lost to her all through the winter in her mind, and spilling out through her, so that she couldn't bear not to sing. There were so many songs that she hadn't written in the fog of grief, and now they came to her with the fire she'd only rarely captured before. She'd started up from the path and sang halfway down the mountain, and then she'd noticed that the shadows were moving.
Shadows were one thing. Another was that when she stopped singing, her mind didn't go quiet, or turn to ordinary wanderings. Instead, she realized that the trees were speaking to her, and she went to a birch by the side of the path and was about to engage it in conversation when she realized exactly what she was doing.
It was then that she knew that her success and endurance had not been enough. She had gone mad. And it was then that Morwith wrapped her cloak around herself, set her gaze firmly to the path in front of her feet, where she couldn't see any shadows to notice them dancing, and started home with the taste of despair in her mouth.
The walk home took only a few hours. The proximity of Cadair Idris was probably why she'd had this idea in the first place. Ever since she was a child, she'd seen occasional travelers coming to spend the night on the mountain, and then returning – or not returning. There were rarely more than three or four in a year, but still, it had left an impression.
Her father had spoken to the bards who had come, and often had them as guests. Her father had also spent much of those conversations trying to persuade them to turn back. He, along with some of the other men of Lord Ryrid, went to retrieve the bodies of those who did not wake up once they hadn't been heard from in a few days. Whenever a traveler stopped by the village on the way in, he would recount those trips, the anonymous burials after with no way of sending word to their families, the hideous injuries they sometimes found.
The mad were more difficult to tell stories about, because they didn't often speak of what had occured. They would ride by, silent and huddled and wrapped in their cloaks, or walk without meeting anyone's eye. (Rather like Morwith was now, but she put that from the front of her mind determinedly.) Or they would stop, but their words would come out garbled and only with immense effort. They never wanted to talk about what had happened, but you could guess that it had been terrible.
Her father would speak of this,and entreat them, “You're a poet, your words are your life. A mad ploughman can still work the earth if he can focus long enough, a cook's skills aren't diminished if he goes on about the loss of Eden every hour of the day, but us? We've nothing else.” He would plead with them to wait, to see if the stifled words within their mind would come loose with time, or tell them that poetry was a skilled craft like any other, and that skill would come with time. It might not be the firey, entrancing words of one touched by Idris, but it would come, and with much less of a risk. Once or twice he had offered the less experienced bards apprenticeship with him; he was not famous, but he was well regarded by those who had eaten at Lord Ryrid's court.
Of course, it rarely worked. One of those offered apprenticeship had accepted, and stayed with them several years before returning home, when Morwith was a small child. A few had stayed a few nights and been ultimately persuaded to return home. But really, anyone who had made such a journey was not likely to turn back at its final day. Desperation or hunger had always taken them by then, so that they listened to her father's words only with the politeness of a guest at someone else's table.
Rather like Morwith had gone over the stories in her mind with a cursory politeness to her father's memory before she set out yesterday, in fact. But she had lived, and it was over now. And anyway, she told the ghost of her father angrily, in her mind, she had no craft now as it was, and she had no time to wait and see if the words would come back, not when she'd been unable to string a sentence of poetry or a few notes together since last fall. Angharad was due to leave soon, she'd only been fostered out to this court for a year, and in any case, it wouldn't be long before Lord Ryrid was forced to find another poet and the position passed from her family.
At least her mother and Angharad would have known what happened if she'd died – Angharad was waiting up for her return right now. Had she not come back, Angharad would have summoned the men from the manor to go after her body. There'd have been no anonymous grave for her.
And anyway, she wouldn't have had to do this at all if her father hadn't gone and died and left them, so it wasn't her fault anyway--
Morwith realized, with a sort of sinking feeling, that she had been ranting out loud for some time, and had no idea when she'd started.
She looked over her shoulders and around, spinning in a circle, but the only creatures watching were a couple of birds, staring with interest from one of the trees. The trees were a surprise, though – when had she gotten into the forest? How long had she been walking?
She hadn't noticed because she'd been staring at the ground, she told herself, and pulled her cloak back in. She was only a little ways from the village now, anyway. The sun had advanced to mid morning. Angharad would be worrying.
She brought her mind back to the most important of the songs that had come to her when she woke, and was relieved to find she still remembered the details. They would change, of course, as she worked out the melody and harmony, and sang the piece, but she had been terrified that her first triumph was entirely imaginary, and the music would melt away like water.
She had the gist of the refrain worked out now. She'd have to speak to the men at court who'd fought in the battle to do more, reacquaint herself with the details of the fight she was commemorating. As much as she didn't want to think about it, well, that was her job. To describe the battle for those who hadn't been there to see it. She'd had half a year to hide from it.
Now she turned to the melody. She could hear some of it already, but if she adjusted that note there, it would be leaving more room for harmony... She hummed, experimentally, and started off walking again. Dropping to the bottom of her vocal range on the repeat of the melodic line would let more of the court join in – that was the problem with being a woman and writing music for men, half of the time. Morwith could only really show off her voice like a performer should in a solo piece she didn't plan for anyone else to learn, and that was a good way to be totally forgotten.
Well, there were female singers, just fewer of them. She'd just have to keep the lords' wives in mind when she was writing. Enith, Lord Ryrid's wife, had a high voice with a range wider than Morwith's own, and she'd always liked music – perhaps Morwith could write one of the harmonic lines with her in mind.
Sinking into the music was a good way to ignore absolutely everything else. It carried her to the edge of the village, and there she pulled her cloak up over her head and face, not wanting anyone to stop her. She needed to get home, to Angharad; by now she must have told Morwith's mother what was going on, and they'd both be frantic with worry. She must have slept later than she'd thought, or perhaps more likely, she'd been slowed by the disorientation on her way home; it was late morning, far later than she should be if she'd left at dawn.
She made it through the small village without being stopped. As she approached the walled court on the hill top by the other end, Morwith slowed. The gate would be open at this time, and with no one in particular watching it, but she would need to show her face so no one asked why a stranger had come inside.
Reluctantly, she pulled the cloak away and held her head up. The shadows were blessedly still. Perhaps it would be alright. Perhaps it really had been a fluke.
There weren't enough people in Lord Ryrid's court on a day to day basis to really form a crowd. He ruled perhaps two thousand people, mostly peasant families and smaller tribes scattered across the territory, either farming the more fertile land or raising livestock on the mountain sides. His court contained a few dozen; he was well off for a minor lord, with a long family history of military successes, but not so well off he could afford spectacle on a daily basis.
He also couldn't afford to hire more than one bard's family, which was both the reason for Morwith's opportunity and the reason her failures in the past month had been so much of a problem. If there'd been someone else to rely on, he wouldn't have had to consider replacing her. There would have been more time. She knew he didn't want to dismiss her. He wouldn't have given her so much time to cope with her father's death, otherwise.
It was almost worse that way, she reflected miserably. She absently nodded hello to Gwerith and Tangwistel, two of the noblewomen, who were sitting out in front of the main manor spinning and talking, but kept her face down. To be retained out of pity, and because he was a good man who felt loyalty towards her family and would never turn them out after the decades of service her father had given both him and his own father, and her grandfather had given his grandfather, and so on into the tribal history.
No, she and her mother wouldn't starve if she failed completely. They would have some amount of land to take a living from. Even if the Lord turned them out, they could return to her mother's kin, or perhaps to her father's more distant family. Most likely he would assist her in finding a reasonable match among the lesser nobles of another court, people who would take her mother in with her and care for them both.
And that was the problem. Morwith's marriage, inevitable if she didn't master her father's profession.
“Angharad?” Morwith called tentatively, stopping at the entrance to the house.
“Morwith!” The other woman dashed from inside, hair flying loose and uncovered and tunic without a girdle, and threw her arms around her. Her fingers dug into Morwith's shoulders, and when Morwith raised a hand to her cheek, she found Angharad was trembling.
“I'm alright,” she said softly. The words came without difficulty. “I'm alright, love,” she said, and kissed Angharad lightly. On the cheek only, outside and in view of the others.
“Praise God.” Angharad returned the kiss and stepped back, but she still gripped Morwith's shoulders tightly, and her eyes were wide with stress – they darted like those of a nervous horse. “It worked? You succeeded, then?”
“I think,” she said, hesitant, but that confirmation was enough for the other woman's face to erupt in joy.
“Come on then,” she said hurriedly, tugging Morwith's hand to pull her into the main room of the house. “Your mother is worried sick – I'm sorry, I know I said I wouldn't tell her until you were back, but then you didn't come and I... I worried.”
The two of them hadn't discussed the possibility that Morwith would not wake any more than Morwith had let herself think about it beforehand.
“And it's good you did,” Morwith's mother said sharply, standing from where she'd been crouched by the hearth, tending to something in a pot. It smelled wonderful, and Morwith became aware that she hadn't eaten in some time, any more than she'd really, truly slept.
“You're well, daughter?” she asked. As she approached, Angharad melted away to stand shyly at Morwith's side. Her mother clasped a hand to her cheek.
“I don't know,” she admittedly. The fire was bright, and her gaze kept returning to it. She thought she saw something inside it – eyes, perhaps, like the eyes she'd seen in the clouds as the hounds rode them--
Abruptly, and with no clear idea of why she was doing it, Morwith burst into tears.
Her mother's arms around her were strong and comforting. She sagged into them and let her mother hold her up. Angharad's hand on her hair was light, as nervous as the woman herself about its right to be there, but definitely there. Morwith let them lead her to the bed in the corner, knowing she needed the rest for all she hadn't been awake long. Magical trials were not true sleep. Sleep, for real, in her own bed, and then she'd know the way of things.
Her mother left once she was resting, reminding Angharad to tend the food so that it wouldn't burn, and saying she had a few things she needed to get from the village. Most likely she meant to give them privacy.
Morwith thought that she should speak with Angharad, tell her what had happened, but words failed her, and instead she sank down onto the bedding. Angharad curled into a ball by Morwith and held her head in her lap, running fingers through her hair and telling her to sleep. Her last thought before drifting off was that she hadn't even unpinned her cloak – her father's cloak, rather – let alone taken it off.
Ultimately, it turned out that it wasn't just the lack of sleep, the haunted status of the mountain, or exhaustion. Morwith had gone mad.
She tried very hard to hide it from her mother, and from Angharad, not wanting them to know what had happened. Her mother didn't need the added worry, and Angharad, well – she wasn't from the village, and Morwith rather strongly suspected she didn't truly understand what Morwith had risked, going to Cadair Idris.
She hadn't grown up seeing the dead or the survivors; there had only been two visitors to Cadair Idris in the time that Angharad had stayed with them, and both had been housed by other people now that Morwith's father was gone. She'd heard that one had been scared into running before he could spend the entire night on the peak, and the other had come back speaking of demons every time he turned. She wondered, now, what he had seen that made him speak of demons; she'd just taken for granted that that might happen at the time, that he would be doomed to jump at shadows for the rest of his life, but would reassurance have helped? Someone to check if there was really something there?
She wondered these things because she increasingly wanted them herself. She continued to see shapes in the fire, and things that should have remained stationery moving. At times she would hear voices, -- someone shrieking about blood and Gwynn ap Nudd's hounds in a crowd, before she turned and found no such conversation going on, or she'd listen closely to running water, sure that the rush covered whispered words. At times she abruptly lost track of what she was doing, or suddenly jerked away and realized she'd been listening to the water, or staring into the fire, for more time than she could be sure of.
It didn't seem too terribly disruptive, up until the first day she went back to retrieve a few pieces of forgotten laundry for her mother during the washing, got utterly lost on the short walk back up the hill, and came to herself half a day later, kneeling in front of a group of birds, with her throat hoarse like she'd been speaking for a long time. After that, she tried not to walk anywhere by herself.
Angharad had been almost attached at the hip to her for months, and she didn't think she or Morwith's mother had noticed anything too strange about that, but staring into space or suddenly turning to look at nothing...
Then, too, there were the nightmares. They were dull, unimpressive echoes of that night on Cadair Idris, and Morwith hoped they would fade in time as the ones after her father's death had. Even a dull echo of the screams and wails and the sick, heaving dance of the hills, however, was enough to make her scream and shake and alight from sleep in a panic. She reached for Angharad in her panic, over and over, and it was only Angharad's soft words and her body pressed against Morwith's in the bed that allowed her to return to rest.
She was going to have to talk to them soon. She knew. But she wanted something more to tell them, something to soften the news, and so first, she went to see Lord Ryrid – or more accurately, his wife.
When Morwith found her, Enith was sitting by the banked hearth of the main hall, sewing by the light coming in from the wide, open windows. Morwith recognized the dress as one Lady Enith had worn frequently last year; she was embroidering a new collar for it. The old one sat on the ground next to her, worn and somewhat ripped.
“My lady,” she said, waiting for Enith to smile at her before she sat next to her by the hearth.
The hall always seemed strange during the early day, so empty of people and quiet. The sunlight lit the space up so that you could see how small it really was, unlike the way the roaring fire in the evening cast flickering shadows that seemed to go on without end. The emptiness called to her, and she was afraid for a moment that it would literally speak, but no, in the back of her mind she heard music, a descending scale modified to sound haunting, rather than triumphant...
Enith was talking. Morwith wrenched her mind back to the conversation viciously, promising the song, later. “It's nice to see you working on music again,” she was saying. “Last winter was a bad one for everyone, but especially your family. I'm sorry we lost your father.” Her face was compassionate, a concern that seemed to wrench Morwith's heart out of her chest and crush her voice into silence all over again.
“So am I,”Morwith murmured awkwardly, eyes down and determinedly away from the fire before she could see anything else to distract her. Instead, she watched Enith's embroidery.
“You didn't come to me to hear this, though,” Enith said wryly. “What is it?”
“Well, I've been – I'm writing a song for your husband, about-- about the battle.” Enith knew the song she was referring to. Unfortunately. She'd been witness to Morwith's repeated requests for more time, after all. Even if she hadn't known, there was only one battle Morwith would call the battle. She carried on hurriedly, “You know most of the men who learn music sing much lower than you or me. Your range is closer to mine. I wanted to know if you'd sing with me once it's been introduced, on the higher part.”
Enith raised her eyebrows, thankfully not touching the subject of which song they were speaking of. “If you think I'm good enough,” she said candidly. “I'm not a trained singer.”
“You sing as well as anyone,” Morwith started awkwardly, not willing to insult her lady even by implication.
“Anyone who's not a bard.” Enith smiled at her. “I know my limits. If you'll teach me the part, though, and it's within my capacity, I'll learn it.”
“I hoped you'd say that,” Morwith said, turning to face her on the hearth. “Your part would be fairly short, mostly on the refrain – the men will fall in on the bottom part once they've heard it a few times.” Any of the Cymru could harmonize from the time they could talk; Morwith would only annoy the non-performers with specific directions.
With that introduction, she began the part that was most nervewracking about this: she sang Enith's part.
For all it was disruptive, it wasn't the madness she was sure of that terrified Morwith. Not anymore. She'd adjusted, slowly. Once she told Angharad and her mother what was going on, she'd be more steady; she wouldn't have to come up with excuses to have someone walk with her to get water or visit with her friends in the village. Perhaps she could go on her own, even, if they knew to check on her if she was late.
The part that scared her was that she wasn't sure of where the madness stopped. One thing to be mistaken about hearing voices, or whether a shadow moved, or even to become momentarily convinced someone was screaming at her in a crowd, to wake up screaming every night in a row for a week – another entirely to be unable to judge her own work. She thought the music she'd composed since leaving Cadair Idris had been wonderful, the best she'd done in her life, but what if that was just another facet of the curse? What if, the same way it made her captive to the song of water or the flicker of fire, it made her captive to her own mediocre or worse melodies?
She hadn't sang for anyone since coming back, although the fact that she was working was obvious. At most, the women she spun, cooked or washed among heard snatches of humming as she was unable to keep herself from reworking the music in her spare moments. She had been too afraid to really show anyone the song, in case it was really nothing worth showing.
But now, Morwith watched Enith's face as she learned the part. She didn't frown, or look disappointed or bored; she seemed intent, rather. And when Morwith sat back and sang the melody, so she knew what she was harmonizing with, Enith leaned forward, face raptured.
Oh, Lord, thank you, Morwith thought, clasping her hands on her skirts to keep them from shaking. I'll give up my sanity any day, as long as I still have music. Thank you.
They spent the rest of the morning working on Enith's harmony. It sounded different out loud, in two voices, than it had in Morwith's head. Of course that was always how it worked, but it meant some adjustments were necessary. She changed her own part in places as well. She hadn't really been able to sing out loud without being overheard, afraid to walk alone outside the clearly enclosed fortifications as she usually might have.
The last time they sang it together, Morwith heard herself, projecting into the corners of the empty hall. She heard the words as though she were watching another bard perform, and at the same time saw the battle it was describing, like it took place in front of her eyes. Like when it had taken place in front of her eyes, last fall, in the weeks between the final harvest and the first snow. She heard the clatter of hoofbeats on the stony earth of the mountain, of weapons against chainmail. She heard the screaming of battle cries. And she saw the charge, the enemy soldier striking out, and her father falling from horseback.
She heard Enith join in, above her, wailing like the hounds in the heavens, lamenting those lost of their own people, Morwith's father among them. And then it broke with the end of the verse. The tone changed to complement Morwith's triumphant words on the refrain, reminding the people of their victory and Lord Ryrid's might. Morwith saw the enemy beaten back and driven to flee downhill, and the return of Lord Ryrid with his brothers in arms beside him. With the sense she'd inherited from her father and all his fathers before him, and honed since childhood, Morwith knew the song was done.
She held out the last note, past Enith dropping out, and enjoyed the way the hall rang with her voice before finally letting the music die.
Applause came from behind her, a single pair of hands. She jumped and whirled, barely remembering to keep clear of the fire, and saw Lord Ryrid himself standing at the entrance to the hall, smiling.
“I heard you were talking to the men about the battle again,” he said to Morwith. “You did well on that song. I don't think I've heard music like that in – a long time.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, bowing her head, unexpectedly stung by the praise. She'd had to do well, she was commemorating not just a victory, but her father's death.
Perhaps that had been the problem all along.
He was asking Enith something about the household stores – whether they had enough supplies for some feast in a week. Morwith sank back to her knees on the hearth, wondering if that was it. If all she'd done was well, and if that was good enough for her to be retained as the bard, and to get other concessions.
Enith was leaving. She got up, started to follow, but Lord Ryrid stopped her.
“Morwith,” he said. “I need to speak with you.”
“Yes, my lord?” she asked, not trying to meet his eyes. “Was there a problem with the song?”
“No. The opposite, that was – much more than I expected of you, to tell the truth.”
“Because I'm a woman?” She kept her tone carefully neutral, needing to know, needing to ask, but not so failing of self-preservation that she would demand it.
“There's that,” Lord Ryrid said slowly. “And there's the fact that you're a young poet, untried on your own, with your father less than half a year in the ground. And singing of his death. I need to ask you something.”
“You went to Cadair Idris, didn't you?” he asked.
She jerked her head up, staring. He was smiling at her, a little sadly, but didn't seem angry. “I did,” she said, slow. “Why? How?”
“I've heard a bard who survived the stay there once before.” Lord Ryrid shook his head. “You'll never want for work in your life again. I hope you stay here, now that you've a choice about it. But, Morwith – you know that I would not have turned you and your mother from your house, had you never written music again? My bond to your father and his family didn't end with his death.”
“I know,” she whispered.
“Then why?” he asked. “I won't tell someone not to risk themselves for honor, the Lord knows I do it enough, but it isn't expected of you.”
“I need something more than survival,” she said, and found that the words she'd been sitting on for months, almost as long as the song had stayed buried, were finally in her head. “I'd intended to ask you if you'd – if the payment for my services would include your fee for a marriage.”
“Of course,” he said, slowly. “Although that would normally be your husband's responsibility. I hadn't heard you'd found something, who is it? One of the bilain?”
Of course, the bilain who worked the fields couldn't often cover the amobr payment with little warning. Or a an appropriate morning after gift for even a lesser noblewoman. But that wasn't the problem.
“Not exactly,” she stammered out. “The problem is that – I – it's not, a husband, who'd have... You know Angharad has been staying with us since she left your hall's women's quarters.”
She saw him hesitate, start to ask a question, and then the exact moment when he understood. Morwith gripped the girdle tying her tunic on hard, wrapping her fingers around the sturdy fabric. She knew it had happened occasionally – Angharad's village had a couple who had been married by the village priest, even, sanctified before God. Angharad had told her it was a possibility.
She hadn't even known she'd wanted it until she'd met Angharad, but now that she did, to marry a man would be unbearable.
“Please,” she whispered, trying not to dissolve to begging.
“She's been staying with you for almost a year?” Lord Ryrid said, voice thick with dubiousness.
“Yes.” Morwith cast her eyes down.
“And you intend to marry her?”
“If she wills it. I haven't... I didn't want to ask, not knowing if I could provide a real future in it.” Morwith didn't dare look up at his face, but she needed to know if he was angry. She tilted her head up, slowly, and saw that he was regarding her with an intense frown, but no heat.
“Of course.” He sighed. “This is why you were so desperate for the position? So that you could give her an offer she could reasonably accept, before she leaves in a month?”
“Yes, my lord,” Morwith murmurd.
“How, may I ask, did this begin?”
She supposed she'd known, on some level, that she would have to account for the relationship eventually once she brought it into the public eye. “It was after my father died, I – you remember what a mess I was.” Some of her crying fits had been regrettably public, and she'd gone voiceless in the middle of the first time she'd been able to drag herself to the hall to sing, unable to summon any emotion but disgust and despair at the battles for glory and land that had gotten her father killed. Fortunately, only the court itself had been there at the time.
“My mother was almost as bereaved as I was, and there were practical problems. I mean, we weren't making ourselves food, the chickens weren't being fed. That kind of thing. Angharad offered us her help. She took care of the house until both of us were more capable of it.” That much, Lord Ryrid very likely knew, as Angharad had been in his wife's care. “It was in that time that we started talking. I don't know what to tell you, my lord, apart from that I came to love her, and I still do. I believe she loves me, as well. If I am able, I will take care of her.”
“It isn't as if I can ask you to change what's happened in the past,” Lord Ryrid said dryly. “I suppose it's worth some amount of scandal to have a bard gifted by Idris, and it would have fallen to me to find you a husband eventually, with no one of appropriate rank here. Her family did want the ties to this court.” She could see the way he was captured briefly by politics, as firmly as she ever was by music, before he shook his head and returned to the moment. “I take it relations have occurred?”
Morwith winced internally. Then she winced externally. “Yes, my lord.”
“Then we'd best get on it soon.” He passed his hand over his forehead. “And I'd best write to her parents. You'll need enough for her dower if you intend to cover the fees, as well as the amobr paid. She's higher status than you,” he continued matter of factly, mind apparently made up, “But not so much it's an unreasonable match.”
Morwith stared for a moment, unable to think what reply was suitable now that the interrogation had finished, and finally gave up on standing and dropped to her knees by the hearth. “Thank you, my lord,” she managed. “Do you want the song performed at the feast next week?”
“If it will be ready then?”
“It should be.”
“Then you'd best go talk to Angharad, I think,” Lord Ryrid said, and swept from the hall.
Morwith held it together until he was gone and the main hall was empty of people again, and then sank to the floor on her side, laughing weakly. It was done, it was done, he'd agreed.
She heard the song in her head again, the song of the empty hall, and sang a few notes out loud. She could write that song. Maybe she'd even find a way to turn it into an appropriate performance piece – perhaps she could come up with lyrics about the clan's momentary defeat in her great-grandfather's time and the destruction of the former hall, and tie it together with another melody about the new one's construction.
She'd come up with something. She'd have time for it. She'd have time for all the songs. She looked at the fire, and saw eyes in it, and instead of fear, she felt triumph. When she squinted, she saw more than eyes – a snout, like that of a cat, and whiskers formed by streaking embers. Even a tail arched over its back.
“Thank you,” she said to the unknown creature in the flames. “Thank you for my music.”
Then she sank back to the stone floor and laughed until she cried.
Now there really were enough people within the walls of the hill top to form a crowd.
Morwith watched from the steps of her house as the people of two other courts came by, Lords going to greet Lord Ryrid and pay respects, their entourages streaming just about everywhere. People from the village, and the others nearby, had come up as well to eat at the feast and hear music and storytelling.
Morwith's mind was far from the brightly colored clothing, however, and it was only occasionally jerked into awareness of the moment by some snatch of conversation from the crowd. (The one about the Anglo-Saxons were almost certainly real, but she was less sure of the small cluster shouting over the bones of saints discovered a few petty kingdoms away, and almost completely dubious of the man shouting about rivers of blood.) She twisted the leather pouch in her hand, going over the contents in her mind – the rings Lord Ryrid had given her as payment, now that she was taking up her position as bard.
On the one hand, she had the night ahead of her to think about – the feast, the wine she would have to be careful of when she had work to do, and her performance. She had a number of older songs practiced, some tribal histories of her and her father's ancestors, more of Lord Ryrid's history, and a few that the visitors would know as well. She'd warm up with the more commonly known ones, then introduce the new song.
Her breaths came quicker just thinking about that, but at least it was as much anticipation as terror and grief. She hadn't sung at a feast since her father died, although she'd been into the hall on more typical evenings fairly regularly. And to sing her own work, under her name instead of her father making a few remarks about the credit due his apprentice – she found herself grinning just thinking about that.
The other place her mind was, however, was the conversation she was about to have, oh, some time – now.
Angharad came barreling through the crowd, laughing and brushing off some teenage boy. Morwith didn't know him; he was probably from one of the other courts. Angharad turned away from him, tucking stray hair back into her headscarf, and beamed at Morwith as she came up to the house, but they didn't speak until they were inside.
“I spoke to Lord Ryrid,” Morwith began. She had to stop, then, voice cracking, and take a breath. “About some considerations.”
“Yes?” Angharad said, looking slightly mystified.
“And he's – he's willing to make provisions, provided you will – oh, damn this,” Morwith said and took a swig of water from a cup she'd left on the table. Her voice had to hold up through the whole night, it couldn't go cracking now. “Angharad, the practicalities are dealt with, I have money for the fees and my lord's permission. Will you marry me?”
Angharad stared a moment, and Morwith had a horrid, sinking feeling that she was about to say no, or laugh, or say something terrible.
But then she took Morwith's hand in hers, seemed to find that unsatisfactory, and flung her arms around her instead. “Of course!” she said. “You spoke with him already?”
“Yes. He said he'd write to your parents for us. I have money for your portion, and my service covers the fee to him, so if you will...”
“I definitely will.” Angharad laughed and kissed her. “So do you give me the morning gift now, or do we need to consummate it again, officially...?”
“Right now, unless you object.” Morwith met her eyes, bright and sparkling, and felt that for the first time since she'd come back, she was truly on steady ground. She grinned back at Angharad, and slipped the pouch into her hand.
She'd have to talk to her, and her mother, about the madness. She was certain Angharad had noticed in the past week. She might need to speak to Lord Ryrid, as well, just in case he saw something to worry him. There was the performance to get through. But in the longterm, past those conversations, everything was going to be alright.
She was sure of it.