THE kingdom of Lysnowydh was tucked along the Cornish coast. It was a sleepy hamlet, protected from the marauding Welsh and far enough from London that few traveled its way. The king was old and kindly, and the promise of the kingdom settled on the tawny shoulders of his heir, Sir Christopher.
One warm spring afternoon, the king walked across the fields with his son. “I shall not live forever,” he said softly, “and the kingdom shall be yours when I am gone.”
“Aye, Father, this I know,” Christopher replied, a smile playing around the corners of his mouth. “Yet you shall be with us yet a while. You are too stubborn to depart ere your time.”
The king laughed as they approached the stile. He rested his hip against the stone wall and gazed at a crow winging across the clear sky. “None can say with certainty what the future will bring. There was a time when I believed that both I and your mother would live for lo these many years.” He heaved a sigh, his eyes clouded for a moment. When he continued there was a catch in his voice. “And yet she has stepped off this mortal coil these three years past, leaving me with only you to keep me in check.” He paused a moment, and then smiled as he gazed at his son. “I would stay with you for years and years to come, but ’tis a reality that I may not. You must provide an heir, to take the kingdom when ’tis your time to pass on.”
Sir Christopher shifted irritably and startled the crow as it paused to alight. With an angry squawk, the crow flew on. There was not a day that passed when he did not think back on his own mother. He missed her still.
“Father, you speak of things that are far in the future. In order to provide an heir I must first obtain a wife, and I am far more interested in dallying with the lassies, not marrying them.”
“Or laddies,” his father replied softly.
Christopher blinked and was silent for a moment before he acknowledged softly, “Perhaps more often with the lads.”
“Aye,” his father concurred. “But an heir will not come from such a union.” He reached over and laid a hand on his son’s shoulders. “’Tis not my aim to judge you, Christopher. We have known, both of us, for many years what you prefer. ’Tis not that I seek to dissuade you from your passion, ’tis only that I seek to ensure the future of our lands. They are as much yours as they are mine.”
“I will not settle down without love,” Christopher said. “You and my mother had a lasting love, and I will entertain nothing less.”
Heaving a great sigh, the king pushed away from the stile and began to walk. “Do not wait too long,” he admonished.
Christopher laughed. “Again, Papa, I tell you, you are jousting with ghosts. You will survive many these years to come.” He added a certain emphasis to the words, as if that would indeed make them truth.
HOT summer’s sun beat down upon the practice yard. Sir Christopher worked hard with the squires assigned to his household. He toughened them, prepared them for the time when they would follow him to battle. He was a gentle yet tough master.
The portcullis creaked up slowly, admitted the only Welshman the kingdom trusted, Dafydd the woodsman, with his load of logs for the king’s kitchen. He drove into the bailey and tethered his horse. The kitchen boys would unload the logs, and Sir Robert, the seneschal, led Dafydd to the well for a long drink.
“’Tis hotter than the blazes of hell,” Sir Robert remarked as he handed the dipper to the woodsman.
Dafydd did not answer, merely grunted and raised the dipper to his full lips. He drank deeply while his eyes strayed to the tiltyard.
The sun dappled off Christopher’s flowing, golden hair, and his laughter rang out in the enclosed courtyard. “Ah, lads!” he shouted breathlessly. “You will have to do better than that if you aim to keep up with me in the heat of battle.” He slid easily from his horse and tossed his practice sword to one of the squires before he headed across the yard to the well.
Dafydd melted back into the shadows of the stables. He watched curiously as Christopher swept the light linen shirt over his head and reached eagerly for the dipper Sir Robert offered. He doused his head and handed the dipper back. He was of medium height, and well muscled from the many battles he had already been enmeshed in. His eyes were brilliant blue and piercing as he cast them in Dafydd’s direction. He kept his beard well trimmed.
“You there,” he called toward the stable. “What business have you here?”
“He is the woodsman, your grace,” Sir Robert said before Dafydd could respond.
“He is a big one,” Christopher said, talking as if Dafydd were an animal instead of a man. “’Tis likely he would have the stamina to follow me into battle, unlike these boys that the nobility sends.”
“He is a Welsh savage,” Sir Robert replied as he reached for the dipper again. “All know the Welsh cannot be trusted.”
As Christopher downed the second dipper of water, Sir Robert paid Dafydd the few coins he was owed for the logs, and watched as he swung up into the cart and departed.
Christopher watched as the cart lumbered from the yard, and then he scooped up his shirt and turned to bellow across the yard, “Lads! To me!”
DAFYDD was a simple man, and he lived a simple life in his cottage that was just inside the borders of the kingdom. As with many of the Welsh, he communed freely with the nature that surrounded him. His horse plodded away from the castle slowly and with the knowledge that, when he returned to the paddock, he would be rubbed down and given a measure of oats for his hard work that morning.
Dafydd was taller than most, and his massive shoulders were large with the muscles that came from hard work collecting wood. Unlike many others, his cheeks were clean-shaven once each week, and his hair was cropped short. Although he wore only homespun, his very presence lent his humble garb richness.
It was cooler under the dense trees, yet Dafydd hardly noticed the shifting temperatures; his mind was centered solely on the memory of the golden beauty that still flashed across his vision. When he arrived back home, he stabled the horse by rote, and disappeared into the depths of his cottage.
Cleanliness was something he prized very much, a sharp contrast to most of the population. Usually he bathed on Sunday evenings in a large tub that took many buckets to fill.
This sunny, midweek afternoon, he dragged the tub to its spot in front of the fire and began the arduous process of filling it. Several trips were made to the stream that ran behind his cottage, augmented by hot water from the pot hanging over the fire. His mind still locked on the memory of the golden beauty by the well, he stripped out of his clothes and settled on the stool in the bottom of the tub.
None graced the woodsman’s bed, either man or woman. Most felt as the seneschal did, that the Welsh were not to be trusted. He was far from home, but solitude suited him.
Something had drawn him to Lysnowydh the year previous, and soon after he had settled, that something had drawn him to the castle. He had watched from a distance in the beginning, and soon was certain the golden light of the king’s son was what had guided his steps. He knew he had seen the vision of glowing beauty in his dreams.
’Twas rare to find the heir at home. It was usually his wont to be out on patrol, or off to London on the kingdom’s business. On a day as today, when the vision appeared before him in the flesh, it set certain cravings roiling in the pit of his belly. Confusing cravings, yet they felt so right.
Usually the simple pleasure of the bath was enough to settle these cravings, still, there were times when the warm water’s caress did not satisfy. He admired beauty, no matter the form it took, although it did strike him as odd that he found the young man’s memory pleasing enough to prompt this dreaming. He was not ashamed, although he found that the touch of his own hand was poor substitute for what he wanted. It was not enough.
Not this time.
THE winter sky shared the sadness the kingdom felt at the passing of the king some months later. Perhaps he had known that warm spring day that his light would be extinguished before the year’s end, but he had not shared the knowledge beyond his urging to his heir. His passing was swift, with little time for any to prepare.
And once the sad business of the funeral had passed, young Christopher found himself on a quest to find a suitable wife.
“I will not marry without love,” he declared before the councilors. He endured their arguments with a set chin, until he finally roared, “Enough.”
His grief was deep yet. They allowed him the week and then renewed their efforts with fierce determination. He must begin the task of searching for a wife, and he must do it soon.
He traveled far and wide, and was unable to swallow his pride and take a mate. He knew he would face their accusatory stares when he returned, again empty-handed. He was stubborn.
The icy rain gave way first to sleet, and then snow. His tired horse plodded down the narrow lane, and while Christopher knew he was within an hour of home, his tired beast did not. He must find shelter for the night, begin the journey again on the morrow.
The cottage was small, nestled along the edge of the little-used track. Snow stung at his eyes, but Christopher managed to spot it. He slid from the horse and stumbled toward the door. His horse blew behind him as he raised his fist to rap on the rough-hewn planks.
The door opened, spilling light into the swirling world of snow.
“Please, I beg shelter from the storm,” he rasped. He looked up, not recognizing the massive man who stood before him. “I shall pay.”
Dafydd recognized the king at once, and he stepped back. “Come; warm yourself by the fire. I will see to your horse.”
“My thanks,” Christopher shouted over the howl of the wind, and he moved gratefully toward the fire to warm his hands.
The horse stabled, Dafydd returned and bolted the door behind him. He shed his woolen mantle and gazed at the golden-haired young king where he crouched by the fire.
“I will pay you for your trouble,” Christopher murmured. “I have gold.”
“You will not,” Dafydd responded as he moved into the room toward the large table that dominated the center of the cottage. “I do not require payment in gold for sheltering a traveler from the storm.”
As the fire warmed him, Christopher shed his fur-lined cloak, rose, and sprawled in the one chair at the table. He watched as Dafydd stirred the fragrant stew in the pot hung above the fire.
“Then I shall pay you with what you desire,” he said. “Everyone desires something.”
Dafydd set the long-handled spoon aside and turned to pour two mugs of ale from a pitcher that sat on the windowsill. He handed one mug to Christopher and took the other for himself.
“I have all I require,” he said. “A warm cottage, a horse, work I enjoy.”
“Then I fear you misunderstood me,” Christopher said softly. “I did not promise to give you what you require, but what you desire. There is a difference betwixt the two.”
With a grunt, Dafydd set his mug on the hearth and swung the pot out from its spit over the fire. He ladled two bowls of the savory stew and broke a round loaf in half. He handed the simple meal to the king.
“Then I will ask you for a story,” he said. He sat on the floor, his back against the hearthstone.
Christopher took the bowl and realized this simple man had shared full half of his meager meal, and had allowed him to take the only chair. Were he not so bone tired and hungry, he would have returned the bowl and pressed on, stronger now for having sat a quarter of an hour in the warmth. Yet something held him, and he scooped some of the rich stew up with the bread, burned his tongue, and spoke with a full mouth.
“What kind of a story do you wish?”
Dafydd ate with his spoon and saved the crust of bread to soak up the rich gravy that pooled in the bottom of the crude bowl. “A story of beauty, of the finer things in life,” he said simply.
The meal consumed, Christopher picked up his mug and accepted another measure of nut-brown ale. “I am not sure I can oblige,” he said softly. “There was a time when I knew beauty, and softness in my life, but I fear now ’tis not so. Now I must needs accept that the world is a cold and hard place.”
“I am a simple man,” Dafydd said. “I know nothing of the world. I would accept any story you told, real or imagined. You did promise.”
Christopher smiled ruefully. “That I did. Yet I fear you would know the difference betwixt a made-up story and the truth.”
“I would not know the difference,” Dafydd replied softly.
“Aye, you would.”
They sat in companionable silence until Dafydd refilled the mugs for the third time. Christopher took a long draught of ale and ran his soft pink tongue over his lips to clear the foam. “My manners are sorely lacking. You have fed me a delicious meal, and yet I know not even your name.”
“My name is Dafydd, and I deliver the wood for your castle’s kitchens, your majesty.”
“Ah, so you have had the advantage of me all this while, knowing who I am whilst I am kept in the dark.” Warm, full of good food and ale, Christopher sprawled back in his chair; his eyes twinkled in the firelight.
“I am not a stranger to your bailey,” Dafydd said. “But you are dallying from your task. My story.”
“A promise is a promise.” Christopher rested the mug on the arm of the chair. “Once there was a young lord who was the apple of his mother’s eye. In fact, the only one she favored more was the lord’s father, the king of a small hamlet on the Cornish coast.”
Dafydd sipped his ale, comfortable on the furs that were scattered before the fire. He listened as Christopher told his story, realized it was his own history he recounted.
“The lord admired many things, yet what he admired most above all things was hard work, and thus he held those who toiled diligently above all others.” He paused to look down at the woodsman. “When the lord became king, he was expected to take a wife, provide the kingdom with an heir. The new king found this prospect distasteful.”
“Why was that?” Dafydd asked as he set his empty mug on the hearth.
Christopher’s voice dropped, and became sultry and warm. “Because, the king preferred to have a man to warm his bed.”
There was a silence between them, and yet it was not uncomfortable. Dafydd shifted his position on the floor, moved closer to the king. Christopher dropped a hand from the arm of the chair, stroked it across the top of Dafydd’s closely cropped hair.
“Does this story trouble you?” he asked softly.
“Nay,” Dafydd whispered.
“The king,” Christopher continued, “was sent on many a journey to find a suitable wife, yet each time he came up empty-handed, because he vowed he would not marry without love.” He tipped back his mug and finished his ale. “As such, he gained the disdain of his council, and was set upon by all within his kingdom. He was not allowed proper time to mourn. He soon discovered there was little softness in the world, and all became bitter and ugly in his life.”
“Mayhap not all,” was Dafydd’s quiet response.
“Most,” Christopher said softly. “There was not even time for the king to seek for aught besides a mate.”
A log shifted in the fire and settled in a small shower of sparks. Dafydd moved closer to the hearth and poked the embers with a long stick. He added another log and turned to look back at the king.
“I would stay this night,” Christopher said softly, “if you would allow me to sleep on the floor before your warm fire.”
The wind howled outside the small cottage; icy drafts found their way inside around the windows and the door. Dafydd reached for another log and added it to the blaze.
“You must stay, your majesty. ’Tis far too cold to return to the warmth of your keep. Yet you must sleep in my bed.”
Christopher cocked his head to the side, and he leaned forward in the chair, his forearms rested upon his knees. “’Tis an offer you give me?”
Even in the wan light of the fire, ’twas obvious the woodsman blushed. He dipped his head to hide the confusion in his eyes. “An offer for the warmth of the bed. ’Tis I shall sleep on the hard floor.”
With no more than a rustle, Christopher slipped from the chair and knelt on the floor in front of Dafydd. “’Twas not my intent to make you uncomfortable, Dafydd.”
Dafydd raised his head, his eyes free of confusion. “You do not, your majesty.”
“I have told you,” Christopher continued, “that I would prefer a man in my bed, not a woman. ’Tis not something most men talk about, and yet you have put me at ease, Dafydd. If it troubles you, you must needs let me know.”
“I have told you that it does not,” Dafydd said.
“Then you must tell me of yourself,” Christopher said gently. “And what you prefer.”
Dafydd dipped his head again. “I know not,” he whispered.
“Ah,” Christopher said. “’Tis well. Your honesty speaks volumes.”
“Please, your majesty,” Dafydd said as he raised his eyes and met the king’s steady gaze again. “You must sleep in my bed this night and allow me to take the floor.”
“Aye,” Christopher said, and he rose from his knees. “I am accustomed to sleeping on the hard ground, yet I will honor your request with a condition attached.”
“A condition?” Dafydd said as he stood.
Christopher turned and took up his cloak from where he had tossed it earlier on the bed. “You must needs wrap up in this cloak. ’Twill keep you warm.”
Dafydd hesitated and then reached out and took the cloak. “Aye,” he said simply.
They settled then; the king in the bed burrowed deep amongst the furs, and Dafydd on the hearth, snug in the king’s rich mantle.
When morning came, Dafydd stirred first. He made a hearty oat stirabout in the pot, and drew another pitcher of ale from the barrel in the corner. The two ate in companionable silence before the rekindled fire.
At last Dafydd took the bowls and set them aside. He took up the king’s cloak and brushed it deftly before handing it back.
Christopher reached for the cloak, but did not release Dafydd’s hand. He pulled him closer. “My thanks, humble woodsman,” he said softly, “for the sharing of your meal, your abode.”
“’Twas my pleasure, your majesty,” Dafydd said with a slight tremor in his voice. “All that I have is yours.”
“’Tis well,” Christopher said. He bent forward and pressed his lips against Dafydd’s. When he pulled back, he held the cloak. The woodsman had trembled against him as he bestowed what was supposed to be a kiss of peace, yet they both knew ’twas something more. “Might I come again?”
“You need not ask, your majesty. My home is yours when e’re you desire.”
“Then I shall return,” Christopher said. He donned the cloak and turned to leave. “Mayhap sooner than later.”
“I shall look for you, then.”
The snowdrifts were piled deeply around the cottage. Dafydd stood before the door and watched as Christopher rode off down the track.