The best part of battle days is the quiet. The house is empty but for me, and my feet make no sound on the stone floor as I move from room to room, gathering up the plates, the cups, the long, pointed knives still sticky with flesh. They clatter when I throw them into the bucket for washing, but only for an instant. Then there is silence once more.
Always on these mornings, the bedroom is a dire tumble of discarded leathers, dull daggers, and lost charms. A champion cannot, after all, go into battle without the glamour and excess of a champion. The process of donning armor and weaponry is lengthy and complex, full of more posturing and primping than a girl dressing for her first ball. His boots must be supple, his sword sharp, his daggers gleaming. His doublet must be bright and commanding as a banner, his helm polished into the mimicry of a young sun.
The ritual is lengthened by the braggadocio that punctuates the application of each new item. I have found it best to keep my eyes downcast, my mouth schooled into an unyielding line. My lords always fail to see the humor in their plight. After my fifth husband drew my blood when I snorted at his promise to defeat his challenger with a single stroke of his ancestral sword, I learned it was best to save my smiles until they were gone.
As I stripped the great, canopied bed of its elaborate quilts and yielding, luxurious furs, I wondered what the twilight tide would wash upon my doorstep. It was conceivable that I would greet, once more, the man I had helped dress this morning. There was strength in his arms still, but there had been grey in his beard when he had defeated his predecessor and claimed his spoils—or so he called me and my vast dowry of land and stone — so many years ago. He had brought his predecessor’s head with him, spiked, quite precisely, through the point of his spear. I suppose he thought to cow me with his display of brutality, but I merely burst into my very best counterfeit tears a beat early, to hide the grin that pulled seductively at my lips. Milord had been something of a brute, and I disliked the things he did to me between the sheets. When he showed no signs of relenting after a month of sadist’s games, I took to lightly drugging his wine and sparing myself the brunt of his ministrations. The man who had donned his armor and ridden away this morning had been an improvement, true, but not by much. If he did not return this evening, I would not mourn. Perhaps his replacement would be gentler.
The stories say that Owain was my second husband, and despite the endless ribbon of years and suitors, they say that he is my last. Every challenger that stakes a tent on my land and sounds a horn seems to think that he will face Owain and take his wife. In truth, Owain was my fourth, and he lasted only a few turnings of the seasons before he was defeated. Yet the legends remain adamant, and floods of men find their way here, demanding that the great Owain submit to single combat.
The challengers want everything of Owain; each successful champion takes, along with his lady and his land, his name. The challenger that dislodged him — the first Owain, that is — had no compunction about that final theft; he came swaggering up to me, planted a wet, toothy caress across my mouth, and informed me that my Owain had come back to me, resurrected like the phoenix. I bit him, of course, when he kissed me again, hoping he might blame my behavior on grief rather than spirit. I escaped with a slap on the cheek and a fairly disinterested verbal reprimand, and so I knew I had gambled well. That Owain, the second of his name, lasted no more than a fortnight.
As I spread fresh linens across the bed, I tried to count them. There had been so many … Owain the Fat, Owain the Gruff, Owain the Fop, Owain the Hairy. To be fair, there had been those I had enjoyed, those who were tender with me, who presented me with flowers, jewels, or declarations of love. I bore them as stoically as their less chivalrous counterparts. Attachment, affection, love … these were not for my husbands, my Owains. Whether a day or a year, each one would be defeated, sacrificed to manly ambition and pride.
The poor fools never understand. How could they? Weaned on tales of battle and blood, their thoughts run to the transient glory of prowess. They want only to be lord of the castle, master of the sword.
They never think about the land beyond what it can do for them. They never wonder what they could do for the land.
Maybe if they did, they would walk the boundaries of the little kingdom. They would feel the mossy coolness of the forest floor press against their toes and hear autumnal debris crunch deliciously underfoot.
I do. I breathe upon the roses and lilies, and they bloom. I stroke a child’s hair, and he will live safely through the snows. I bathe in the gold of the ripening wheat, wash my hair with summer fog, and the kingdom — my kingdom — thrives. The people — my people — might pay homage and taxes to my husband, but they bestow their love on me.
Why, then, do I let my Owains quarrel, shed their blood, and claim my castle? Well, they must have something to keep them occupied. And I do not mind overmuch, for they make no effort to take that which is most precious to me.
The poor fools never understand. Lords come and go, but the Lady is the land, and the land is eternal.
Once more, the bridal bed has been neatly laid. I scattered a handful of rose petals over the topmost quilt and set a small vase with a single lily by the bed. Owain will return at dusk, whoever he may be, but, now, I am needed elsewhere. I feel my kingdom thrumming, stirring, in my heart.
[Sara Cleto graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in English Literature and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Folklore and Literature at George Mason University. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Sara has lived in England, Ireland, and Peru in addition to many locations in the US. Her work can be found in Cabinet des Fees, Mirror Dance, and Moon Drenched Fables. When she isn’t writing, Sara enjoys reading obsessively, traveling, giant lattes, and live music of all kinds.]