Prologue to Grail Maiden

 

The Story of Blodeuedd

 

 

The clatter of voices in the Round House subsides to stillness as the Bard rises from his seat. All day, the people of the fief have been celebrating the Spring Equinox, and now that the dancing and feasting and lighting of fires is over, they have gathered together in the meeting place to while away the evening with story and song. And who better to begin proceedings than the Prince’s Court Bard?

All is hushed. Even the smallest children are quiet. The Bard looks around the packed building and rattles his Silver Branch, so that all its little bells tinkle. It is the signal that he is ready to begin. As he leans it against the wall, and walks to the centre of the room, a young lady with rusty-red pigtails leans forward eagerly, the better to hear him.

‘This is the tale of the Lady of Flowers,’ the Bard begins. ‘Listen carefully, for there is more than entertainment in my words.

‘By the time Prince Llew became a man, he had already managed to overcome two curses laid on him by his mother, Arianrhod, with the aid of the cunning and magic of his uncle Gwydion. They had managed to trick her into giving him both a name and his weapons. But so angry was Arianrhod that he had ever been born (and that is a tale for another time), that she laid down a third curse. “You will never marry a woman of the race of the Earth!”‘

The audience gasps at such a terrible curse. In times when a man is measured by his family, as much as by his gold or the number of animals he possesses, cursing him to have none is almost like casting him out of society altogether. Despite being of royal blood, he could never achieve high status without a wife.

‘But Gwydion and Math, his father, were determined to foil this curse, too. They talked it out for days before settling on a plan. Then they called Llew from his bed, where he was lying with his face to the wall, waiting for death – for he knew that a man without a wife is no man at all – and told him to wash himself carefully and put on his best clothes, for they would make him a wife.

‘”Make one?” he enquired. “How?”

‘”Wait and see! All will be revealed,” they told him. And with that, he had to be content.

‘Still, he trusted their magic, so Llew shrugged his shoulders and went to prepare himself to be wed.

‘When he was ready, they took Llew to their magical grove in the forest, and told him to lie down and go to sleep. Their magic would take some time, and he had better be rested and ready for his wedding day.

‘So Llew lay down to sleep. And he dreamed. And in his dreams, the wind blew hard and the wind blew long, and the petals and the blossom came flowing from the herbs and the trees that grew around the grove where he slept. And they flew long, and they flew hard, and the wind swirled around and about, and a long, low chanting rose and fell that seemed to be directing the wind.

‘And the chanting told the wind to go here, go there, and as he watched, the shape of a woman was formed by the swirling petals. And the chanting grew louder, and faster, and the wind blew longer and stronger until, in a final flurry …

‘The petals came together, and the woman stood there, fully formed, made of flesh and blood!’

The audience gasps again. This is powerful magic!

The Bard holds up a hand. ‘But Llew thought he was dreaming. So when he awoke, he was astonished to find that the woman was really there!

Most of the audience has forgotten that the magic was in his dream. But the girl remembers. Was it real?

‘When Llew rubbed his eyes, and sat up to take a closer look, the woman was still there. Wide-eyed in wonder, he looked first at his uncle and then at his grandfather. ‘Did you make this beautiful creature?’ he asked, amazed.

‘Math and Gwydion bowed in agreement. ‘We did,’ they said. ‘She is your bride. Come, say hello. Meet your wife-to-be!’

‘So Llew, still only half-believing, stood up from his bed among the leaves, and stepped towards the lovely lady.

‘As he approached, he bowed low. ‘Lady, my name is Llew,’ he said. ‘May I know yours?’

‘She turned towards him, her eyes the colour of the bluest cornflowers, and her hair the colour of primroses. Her skin was creamy like the foaming flowers of meadowsweet, and her dress was the deep pink of corncockles. ‘My name is Blodeuedd,’ she said, in a voice laced with silk and honey. When she glanced at him from under her long pale lashes, Llew was smitten with love for her.

‘As Math was the King of that land, he had the authority to marry anyone he chose, and so they were married right there and then, under the branches of the sacred grove where the lovely lady had her origin.’

The audience sighs contentedly. They love a happy ending. But wait! The Bard holds up a finger, and the girl nods. He has not finished his tale – but she knew that, somehow.

‘But remember! I said there was more than mere entertainment in my words. There is more.

‘For many years, Llew and Blodeuedd are happy together. They live in a castle given them by his Grandfather Math, and they rule justly and fairly over the land he has entrusted them with.

‘However … after a while, Blodeuedd begins to wonder if this is all life holds for her. She is not human. She was not born. She had no childhood, no wooing, and no chance to choose her own husband. Llew is a good man, but … is there no choice for a maiden formed of flowers?

‘Then, into this pool of doubt, there drops a pebble. Every once in a while, Llew goes visiting, to see his Uncle Gwydion and his Grandfather Math, and when he goes, he leaves Blodeuedd in charge of his land. And one day, while he is away, a man comes riding through the land, hunting the white stag. A man named Gronw Pebyr. With his followers, he requests lodgings in the castle, and Blodeuedd welcomes him, as the wife of a noble and generous lord should. She throws a feast in her guests’ honour, and gives Gronw the best seat in the house – next to her own.’

The audience stirs. They can see what’s coming next.

‘Oh yes, my friends! You see trouble brewing, and you are right!’ The Bard stands abruptly, causing all faces to turn upwards. He strides around the big, circular room, arms flying left and right, as he tells the next part of the story. The girl smiles at his dramatic gestures.

‘Oh yes, my friends! Gronw and Blodeuedd talk together all the long winter evening, and by the time the wine runs low in the pitchers, they are in love!’ He clasps his hands to his bosom in a dramatic gesture, and all his audience sighs. This story just gets better! The beautiful princess gets her man – twice! But what of her husband? Hands rise to cover mouths. The implications are beginning to dawn.

‘But what can she do? Blodeuedd is already married! She has borne her husband no children, but they are well and truly married.’ The Bard nods at certain couples around the room, those who have yet to produce offspring of their own. They know what he means. It is not for lack of trying.

The Bard’s voice falls quiet, and his audience strains to hear his next words. He steps lightly now, his arms held loosely at his chest. ‘Oh, what can they do? For they are clear that they cannot live without each other.

‘What should they do? That is the first question! Should they tell no-one, sadly say goodbye, and part as friends?’

The audience groans and the girl frowns. That would not be a happy ending.

The Bard shakes his head. ‘No. They cannot do that. They could not bear to be parted forever. But then, what? Run away? But surely the outraged husband would pursue them? They would become wanderers, forever doomed to roam the land seeking a bed for the night wherever they could find one. That is no way to live!

‘But surely, the only other way they can be together is … if Llew should die?’

The audience gasps again. How would they get away with murder?

‘Yes, my friends. They conceive a plot to be rid of Blodeuedd’s unsuspecting husband.’

The audience groans. Surely homicide is not the way to a happy ending?

The Bard raises a finger again. ‘But, there is a problem. Llew cannot be killed in the usual ways. A prophecy, made many years ago, says that he cannot be killed by day or by night, indoors or out, clothed or naked, or by any lawfully made weapon. In fact, Blodeuedd suspects that there is only one, very specific, way in which Llew can ever be killed, and that presents two problems. One is to find out what conditions would be needed. The second, of course, is to create those conditions.’

The audience leans back in their seats. This is a tall order, indeed, and may take some time.

The Bard, nodding, sits back down. ‘Not easy, you say. Of course not! The course of true love sometimes runs through difficult terrain, especially for those in high places.

‘But Llew is away for a whole month. They have time to plan the details of their murder. And by the time her lord returns, Blodeuedd knows what she must do.

‘It is not easy for her to pretend to be the loving wife, now that she knows what true love really is. But by imagining Gronw’s face where Llew’s face is, she manages to remain, to all appearances, the same as when he went away. Llew, deceived, notices nothing.

‘One night, as they lie together in bed, she pretends to go to sleep. Soon after, she stirs, and moans, as if troubled by bad dreams. Groaning and crying out Llew’s name, she thrashes around and covers her face with her hands. Gently, her husband wakes her. “Blodeuedd, Blodeuedd, what is the matter?”

‘She pretends to wake, staring up at him with unbelieving eyes, before reaching out to touch his face. “Husband? Is that really you?”

‘He smiles, and kisses her. “Yes, my love. It is really me,” he assures her, though she wishes it were not.

‘A great, shuddering sigh wracks her body, and she clings to him. “Oh, my love!” she cries. “I dreamed … I dreamed … I saw you killed!”

‘He shakes his head. “It was a dream, my darling. Go back to sleep.”

‘”But she protests that she cannot. Not until she knows he will not be killed so easily. He tries to reassure her, but she appears so terrified, in the end he has to tell her why it will never happen.

‘”My love, I can never be killed by mortal man. The chances against it are too high! Why, for any man to kill me, I would have to stand by a river at twilight. I would need to have one foot on the back of a he-goat, and the other on the rim of a bath, and there would need to be a canopy above my head. And even then, the only weapon that could kill me would be a spear made over a whole year, and worked on only on Sundays! What are the chances of all these things happening together, my love?”‘

A ripple of laughter runs through the audience. Such an idea is absurd. And how could it ever happen? This story cannot possibly have a happy ending, can it? They turn to look at each other, confused.

‘Blodeuedd is dismayed, but takes care not to show it. How can she ensure that such circumstances ever do happen together? She lets him reassure her, and kisses him goodnight, then turns over to go to sleep. But sleep is a long time coming. She turns the problem over and over in her head, and eventually comes to only one solution. Then, she finally falls asleep.

‘The next day, she sends a secret message to her lover, telling him to make the spear as described by her husband. Now, they must wait a year until it is completed.

‘On the day the spear is ready, Gronw sends her word. Just one word – Now!

‘And so, she makes her move.’

The audience is spell-bound. Hardly a breath is heard as they lean forward to hear the Bard’s next words. What can the plan be?

The Bard’s voice is quiet, and they strain to hear. ‘That night, Blodeuedd appears to have another bad dream. Again, Llew quiets her, but this time he has to make her a promise. She will not be reassured by his word. She must see for herself the circumstances under which he might be killed, to be certain that it could never happen.’

The audience gasps. The girl’s eyes are wide with wonder. Neither she nor they had imagined so simple a solution.

‘And because Llew loves her, and suspects nothing, he agrees.’

The audience groans. Llew doesn’t deserve such a fate!

The Bard spreads his hands. ‘My friends, you know her plan will succeed! The next day at twilight, Llew has the scene set, and the moment he sets one foot on the he-goat and one on the rim of the bath … wham!’ The audience jumps as the Bard slaps his palms together. ‘Out of nowhere comes … the spear of Gronw!’

The audience’s worst fears are realised.   There are groans and cheers and catcalls, for each has their own opinion on the rights and wrongs of the tale.

‘Llew is hit! His right leg collapses where the spear lodges in his thigh. He falls.’ There is a dramatic pause. Then, slowly, the Bard raises his finger once again.

‘But, my friends! All is not as it seems. Llew is a magical being. He can never be truly killed.’ A sigh breathes through the packed room. The Bard raises his arms, making wings of them. ‘Llew is magically transformed into an eagle, wounded in the leg. Slowly, he flaps away, coming to rest in an ancient oak tree nearby.

‘The lovers, released, run into each other’s arms and embrace. After a passionate kiss, they flee together to their new life – the life of love and freedom they have dreamed of this long, lonely year. Gronw takes her home to his mother, and they live happily together in love’s young dream.’

A few whistles and stamping feet show the approval of several of his listeners for this turn of events. The girl is frowning. She knows there is more to come; that the story is incomplete. The Bard shakes his head, and wags a finger.

‘But Llew is not dead. And his Uncle Gwydion goes looking for him. By his magic, he finds the tree in which sits the injured eagle. He coaxes him down, branch by painful branch, until he can reach up and release his unhappy nephew from the tree. He carries him home and transforms him back into his human shape. Using his magic, he tends the wound, and by and by, Llew is healed.’

A muted cheer goes up from a few husbands in the audience, but they are shushed by wives and children.

‘Gwydion and Llew cannot allow Blodeuedd and Gronw to get away with attempted murder,’ the Bard continues. A groan goes up from a few of the wives. ‘No, my friends. That would be wrong! They search, and they search, and with their magic and the knowledge they have of the Lady of Flowers, in time, they find the lovers.

‘Gronw insists on facing the angry husband, urging Blodeuedd to escape. She tries to cross the river, but her ladies panic, and instead of swimming across and getting clean away, they drown. Blodeuedd is left alone to face whatever consequences might ensue.

‘While Llew takes on Gronw in single combat, Gwydion stalks the lady. She cannot flee, for he holds her in his magical grip.

‘Folding his arms, Gwydion pronounces her fate. “For faithlessness to your husband, for your part in his attempted murder, and for trying to escape the consequences of your treachery – you shall be transformed. You will henceforth see no light of day, and be shunned by all. From Blodeuedd, Lady of Flowers, you shall become Blodeuwedd, the Owl of Night.”‘

The audience gasps, groans and several clasp their heads, or clutch their children’s hands. Such a terrible fate, and all for wanting to make her own choice! The girl’s heart is in her mouth.

‘And Gwydion waves his hands and chants, and the beautiful, headstrong, love-sick woman is … transformed!’ Again, the Bard raises arms like wings, and flaps across the room. Then he turns suddenly and gazes swiftly around the room.

‘But what of Gronw? Why, it seems the man’s a coward!’ Hisses and boos sound across the hall. ‘When facing single combat with the legendary warrior Llew, he asks to cower behind a stone! And, what’s worse – he claims he was led astray by the woman!’ Louder boos and catcalls issue from the crowd. The girl sits back, arms crossed. She would not be fooled by such a man.

‘What’s a man to do? Llew was in love with her himself, after all. He knows her wiles. He agrees.’ More boos, though fewer than before. The Bard spreads his hands. ‘But it avails him not. Llew’s spear is thrown with such force, it passes straight through the rock and pierces the lover’s side. He … is … dead!’

The audience variously cheers, boos and hisses. The girl nods approval.

‘Blodeuwedd, the Owl, her lover cruelly torn from her, flies away into the night. Her tears fall behind her, making a trail of stars we can still see today. Some now call them the Milky Way. She has no need of light now, and shuns the day, for she will never see her lover again. Her lonely call still echoes across the fields and woods on cold, dark nights, but she cares not for the darkness, for all is dark within her very soul.’ And the Bard shrieks like a barn owl, and sinks to a crouch on the floor, his story ended.

The audience rises to its feet, cheering, whooping and clapping. Except for one.

The pretty young redhead in the front row sits thoughtfully in her seat, chin in hand. This evening’s entertainment has given her much food for thought. She is not impressed by the ending, but as Derwen the Bard rises and bows, acknowledging the acclaim of his audience, the red-haired Princess Aelwen stares unseeing out across the room. She has a plan brewing.