“Andronica, ach gwaharddedig at chofnoda ’r llyfrdy!” Father always spoke Welsh when he was angry, and today he was angrier than usual, as this was the third time in a fortnight that I had been caught in the library. He extended his hand for the book concealed behind my back – Caesar’s history of the Gallic Wars – but I stood firm and refused to relinquish it.
“Pater, non sum puella parvula. Lego quidquid volo.” I answered in Latin to lend gravity to my refusal, simultaneously straightening to appear as tall as possible. Though only a month had passed since my thirteenth birthday, I now considered myself an adult and quite capable of choosing my own reading material – and this certainly did not include those tiresome pamphlets intended for “young ladies of good breeding” which Father brought from his visits to London.
“I should have that tutor of yours flogged for teaching you Latin without my permission,” he continued in English after his initial fit of temper had subsided. “Latin is a language used only by learned men, and of course by Papists. Since you are neither, what purpose can it possibly serve? It is only a waste of time better spent at your needlepoint. At this rate, I despair that you will ever become a lady.”
To avoid provoking Father any further, I switched to English as well, though his implication that proper learning was something reserved for the male sex incensed me all the more.
“Father, by the calendar this is the year 1748, but your thinking is from the Dark Ages. Can you explain to me why boys should be allowed to learn Latin, when girls are not?”
“It’s simply not proper for young ladies,” he insisted, taking refuge as usual in the irrational arguments of time-worn tradition.
“You yourself often say that I have twice the brains of anyone else in Wales,” I reasoned, “so why do you begrudge me a proper education? Besides, Mr Smythe has been teaching me Latin that I might read Livy and Tacitus. Roman history is much more interesting than that dreary Popish rubbish. Did you know that Rome nearly lost the Second Punic War? Think of what our country would be like today if the Romans had never come here – our Celtic race might still be master of our own land. Instead of merely being the twenty-fifth Duke of Caerfyrddin, perhaps you would be King of the Britons. Kendrick the First! And I would be the Princess of Wales.”
“Oh Andronica, please don’t start that again,” sighed Father. “We simply must accept that the English are our rulers and be done with it. Now if you will excuse me, I’ve got work to do. That idiot Cuthbert has sent the newest ledgers, and they’re teeming with errors. If not corrected before the next inspection by His Majesty’s Customs, there’ll be hell to pay – not to mention the arrears on the rum excise and the fines to boot. So be off with you!”
I started for the door, hoping Father would not notice that Caesar was now hidden in the folds of my dress.
“Ahem. The book, if you please.”
Dropping the tome unceremoniously on his secrétaire, I stormed out of the room without a further word. There was no point in trying to make him understand. I didn’t want to be a lady – at least not the kind he meant, always smiling demurely and attending to her husband’s every whim, little better than a servant.
To keep the day from falling into compete ruin, I thought to visit my cousin Bronwyn, as she always seemed to have a wise word on such occasions, being the eldest of the twenty-odd cousins in the Llewellyn clan of Caerfyrddin.
The cottage of Uncle Gareth and Aunt Gwyneth was but a short walk through the woods which were virtually all that remained of our ancestral estate, the rest having been expropriated by the English over the centuries. Although Father was a direct descendant of the legendary Llywelyn the Great, the thirteenth-century ruler of Wales, his noble heritage brought us little tangible benefit. For all our grand titles, the family income was quite meagre and we maintained our semblance of dignity only through the revenues generated by Father’s shipping business in Bristol, which was administered by his benighted cousin Cuthbert. At least we had inherited the manor house, such as it was. Someday I would inherit Father’s title as well, since there were no male heirs. Perhaps because of this, he always insisted that people address me as the twenty-sixth Duchess of Caerfyrddin, even though it was not strictly proper while he still lived, so that everyone – including myself – should become accustomed to the idea that I would succeed him as head of the clan.
“Hello Aunt Gwyneth,” I called through the cottage window, which stood open despite the chill of an early October morning. “Is Bronwyn at home?”
“Andronica, when will you learn to knock like a decent young lady?” complained my aunt.
“But you’re family,” I objected, entering the house without waiting for an invitation.
“That doesn’t give you the right to treat us like common rabble. If your mother were alive, I’m sure she would have taught you some manners.”
“That’s not fair, Aunt Gwyneth,” I said, collapsing into the threadbare armchair. “Why must you always say such things? I wasn’t responsible for her death, even if it did come as the result of my birth. Though I never knew her, I miss my mother more than you can possibly imagine.”
Aunt Gwyneth glared at me for a moment, then her expression softened and a tear came to her eye.
“You’re right, child, and I’m sorry for being unkind. But Anwyn was my only sister, and things have never been the same since she died. Life with your Uncle Gareth can be difficult at times – you know how taciturn he is – and I lack the comfort of Anwyn’s laughter. It’s been terribly hard for your father as well, trying to raise you alone. Kendrick is too proud to ask for help, but you’re now getting to be that age when a woman’s guidance is essential. Only three more years and it will be time for you to marry, just like Bronwyn. Speaking of whom, did you know that Edward has finally asked Gareth for her hand?”
“Is that so?” I had never liked Edward Maddox, though I wasn’t sure why. He was a pleasant enough lad and would soon have a handsome income, as he was learning the silversmith’s trade from his grandfather. But Edward simply didn’t seem worthy of Bronwyn. In fact, I could not think of any boy who was.
“Well, I’m sure you won’t lack for suitors of the finer sort,” said Aunt Gwyneth. “Margaret will see to that.”
“What do you mean?” Aunt Margaret was Father’s younger sister and was generally regarded as the black sheep of the family, having moved to London years ago, where she had married some stuffy but well-to-do English gentleman. She had excellent connections among the gentry there – through blackmail, it was said.
“Oh, haven’t you been told? You’re to be sent to London upon reaching your fifteenth birthday. Margaret is arranging for you to be accepted as a lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Wales, who despite her title is German. She says that you’ll surely be married to a viscount, at the very least, once you come of age the following year.”
“Of all the perfidious schemes! I don’t want to live in London, and I certainly won’t marry an Englishman – not after all they’ve done to our country. Doesn’t anyone have the courtesy to inquire as to my own wishes?”
“It’s not your place to have wishes, Andronica. Your elders know what’s best for you.”
I wanted to scream, and would have done if Bronwyn had not entered the room at that moment.
“Oh hello, Andronica. What brings you here today?”
“Don’t ask, just come walk with me.” I fairly dragged her out the door.
Among the cousins, Bronwyn was my favourite, not least because we were often mistaken for twins. Though she was older by three years, our stature was nearly the same, as I had always been tall for my age. The resemblance had lessened when she developed her womanly figure, of which I had lately become quite envious, since mine had yet to show. Otherwise, our appearance was remarkably similar in features and colouring, with the same dark hair and rosy complexion. Only our eye-colour differed markedly, hers being the azure blue common to our clan, while mine was an extraordinary amber yellow, unique among all the family. When Aunt Gwyneth was in one of her less charitable moods, she sometimes said that I had been the cuckoo’s egg laid in the nest of her sister’s womb.
“I haven’t much time,” said Bronwyn, “as Edward is calling for me at noon. We have been given permission to marry, as I’m sure Mother has told you, and I expect he will be bringing me a surprise to mark the occasion.”
“Edward be damned,” I fumed. “I’m no mood to hear about marriage.”
“Whatever is the matter?”
“I have just learned that ‘my elders’ have decided I’m to be packed off to London when I turn fifteen and be made ready to serve as breeding-stock for some English fop. I’ll not have it!”
“Sounds like you’re living up to your name again,” commented Bronwyn.
Andronica. In Greek it means she who is victorious over men. My mother had chosen the name a few days before I was born, certain that I would be a girl-child. Father objected at the time that it was not properly Welsh and that the meaning was patently offensive. Nevertheless, my mother remained adamant. As she lay dying after giving birth to me, she exacted a promise from Father that I should be christened thus. He therefore had no choice but to comply with her final wish.
“Nomen est omen,” I quoted. “You know that I have no patience for silly boys, and even less for Englishmen. Father doesn’t understand, and insists that I be prepared for marriage like a trained bear. How I loathe all those ‘ladylike pursuits’ he tries to force upon me. Lately he gave me a book on needlepoint and is angry that I prefer Latin instead. Today he caught me in the library again and confiscated my beloved Caesar. Oh Bronwyn, I should so have loved to serve in the Thirteenth Legion during the Gallic Wars – surely I would have made a superb general.”
“I have no doubt of it, Andronica. But may I remind you that we are living in the eighteenth century…”
“Of course, that’s why I’ve secretly taught myself to fire a pistol.”
“…and that a woman’s lot in life is not to command armies, but to marry and bear children.”
“Et tu, Brute?”
“Please stop speaking Latin – you know that I can’t understand a word. What I mean to say is: we must make the best of what we have been given. You are extremely fortunate to have such a fine tutor as Mr Smythe, for example, who has taught you to speak French so perfectly that you could pass for a lady at the Court of Louis XV. Uncle Kendrick obviously has high hopes that you will marry well and carry on the family traditions.”
“More likely that I should contribute to the family coffers, leeching off a wealthy Englishman.”
“Now you’re being cynical.”
“Am I? He and Aunt Margaret must have been planning this all along. Why else would Father always bring that insipid ladies’ literature from London? At least he does think to buy the latest scores by Mr Handel as well. Thank God for that. If I didn’t have my music, I would certainly go quite mad.”
“But playing the harpsichord is a ‘ladylike pursuit’ is it not? That is exactly what I mean – make use of your God-given talent. When you’re married, you can regale the salons of London with your music.”
“Don’t you understand, Bronwyn? I don’t wish to be married, and I hate London already, though I’ve not yet been there. You know that I love nothing more than to roam the woods and ride through the fields. I certainly can’t take Ptolemy to London, so I won’t go. I would simply die without her.”
“You are the only person I know who would name a mare Ptolemy.”
“It’s a perfectly good name for a horse, whether mare, gelding, or stallion. Ptolemy was Alexander the Great’s most trusted general. There’s not a nobler name to be found.”
“Andronica, you are incorrigible.”
“I take that as a compliment.”
We walked in silence for a few minutes before coming to Uncle Gareth’s kennels. The dogs seemed unusually restless. As we approached the cage, they began barking furiously, as though alarmed by something.
“That’s odd,” said Bronwyn. “They’ve never acted like this before. I wonder why they’re so aggressive.”
“It reminds me of my Dream.”
“Oh, nothing. It’s only a recurring nightmare I’ve had since I was a small child, something with wild animals.”
“Well, I should best go fetch my father, in case there’s something wrong with the dogs. Just wait here, will you?”
“Sorry, but I really should be going now. You’ll be wanting to prepare for Edward’s visit anyway. Please forgive what I said about him. I’m really very happy for you. Will you come up to the house tonight and tell me all about his surprise?”
“Of course, but I may be rather late.”
“No matter. Come whenever you can.”
Bronwyn went off to find Uncle Gareth, whilst I stood for another minute before the kennel. The dogs were tearing at the bars in such a frenzy that I was afraid they would break through and attack me. I had never seen animals so ferocious – except in my Dream.
I did not return to the house directly, but instead took the long way round past the stables. Since I was still angry and not yet ready to face Father again, I thought to take Ptolemy out for a ride. As I approached her stall, however, she reared and lashed out with her hooves, such that I would have been brained had I been standing any closer. All attempts to calm her failed, and the longer I attempted the more agitated she became. The other horses began neighing frantically as well.
“What the devil has gotten into the animals?” Father had heard the commotion and come to investigate, pistol in hand. As he entered the stable, Ptolemy broke free from her stall and nearly trampled me in her fury. I would have been killed on the spot, had not Father pulled me aside at the last possible moment. When she continued rearing dangerously, he levelled his pistol at her.
“No, don’t shoot!” I jostled Father’s arm to spoil his aim and the shot went wide.
“Go into the house at once,” he shouted over the din, “and let me tend to this.”
I ran to the back door and stumbled into the kitchen. Mrs Jones, our part-time housekeeper, helped me to my feet.
“Whatever is happening, Lady Andronica? Did I hear a gunshot? Is something amiss with the horses?”
“I don’t know what’s wrong, Mrs Jones. When I entered the stable just now, Ptolemy became uncontrollably agitated, as if in fear for her life. Father saved me from being trodden, and then he nearly shot her…”
I could not stop trembling, and began to cry.
“There, there,” said Mrs Jones, taking me into her arms, “let’s get you into the sitting room, and I’ll make you a nice cup of chocolate to calm your nerves.”
After Mrs Jones had seen me settled on the good sofa and supplied with the soothing liquid – one of our few luxuries – I waited for Father to return. The scene in the stable replayed itself before my eyes, and I realised how narrowly I had escaped death. Then I thought of Father, and I could not imagine the grief it would have caused him.
In that moment, it became clear to me that Father was more important to me than anything else in the world, despite our petty differences, and I felt ashamed for my behaviour towards him. It had been difficult enough for him after my mother died, and with no son to carry on the family name he had pinned all his hopes upon me, that I might at least secure an auspicious marriage. My disinterest in all things ladylike was therefore a constant source of worry and frustration for him. I resolved to better myself and speak more kindly to him, though I still could not imagine submitting willingly to his plans for my future.
The noises from the stable had gradually subsided, and presently I heard Father’s voice from the kitchen calling my name. Seconds later, he appeared at the door to the sitting room. I rose to embrace him, and noticed that he too was shaking.
“Andronica, thank God you are unharmed,” he said. “Have you any notion what frightened the horses?”
“Not the slightest idea,” I answered, “but when I was visiting Bronwyn a little while ago, Uncle Gareth’s dogs were also behaving strangely.”
“I will speak with him about it. Perhaps there’s a wild animal on the loose hereabouts.”
He held me silently for a moment.
“Father, I owe you an apology,” I said finally.
“Whatever for? The horses’ starting was certainly not your fault.”
“That’s not what I mean. I am very sorry for being such a wayward daughter. I must be such a disappointment to you.”
“My little duchess, what on earth are you talking about? You mean everything to me, and are never a disappointment. My heart nearly stopped when I saw Ptolemy rearing at you in the stable. If anything, I should apologise for nearly shooting her. I thought your life was in danger, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to protect you.”
“But I am frightfully contrary and have not given sufficient attention to certain aspects of my education which are important to you. Therefore, I promise in future to apply myself more to needlepoint and other ladies’ matters. I’ll even read some of those pamphlets you’ve brought for me. But in return, you must promise something as well.”
“Anything you wish, within reason of course.”
“Please don’t send me away to London, and don’t make me marry some awful Englishman.”
“Who told you about that?”
“Damn her! I wanted to wait at least another year before broaching the subject.”
Father went to stand by the window and pretended to look outside, though it was impossible to see the grounds clearly through the centuries-old leadlight windows. Not a year went by that he didn’t talk about replacing them, but fine French glass was quite beyond our income.
“My dear,” he said softly, his back still turned, “we must face facts. Soon you will be expected to marry, and I haven’t the means to secure you a proper husband through a dowry…”
“Another word for bribery.”
“…so I have no choice but to ask your Aunt Margaret to assist in this matter. She assures me that a position can be obtained for you in service to the Princess of Wales, which will give you an entrée into London’s finest society. After a judicious interval, Prince Frederick himself will speak on your behalf amongst his circle of friends.”
“Why in heaven’s name would he do that?”
“It seems that Margaret has some kind of…influence…over him. I didn’t ask further.”
“So I’m to be married off by means of blackmail?” I was becoming incensed again.
“Oh Andronica, please don’t regard it that way. You know our financial situation. What else am I to do?”
“Perhaps the rum trade will improve,” I suggested.
Father was silent again for a moment – the kind of brooding silence which always meant that he had something more to say but didn’t know how to begin. Finally he turned around, his face set in a determined expression.
“There’s one more thing,” he began. “When you arrive in London two years hence, you will be judged not for your knowledge of the Second Punic War, but for your ability to fulfil a woman’s proper role in society. Therefore I have decided to ask your Aunt Gwyneth to take responsibility for your education after the Yule, so that you may be properly instructed in the ways of women. You will have the next three months in which to complete your current studies with Mr Smythe.”
My heart sank, but I remembered to curb my tongue. Before I could say anything, however, Father raised his hand and gestured across the hall towards the library.
“Since I realise that this decision may be difficult for you to accept, by way of compensation you have my permission henceforth to read any book in the library, whenever you wish, provided Gwyneth confirms that you are making satisfactory progress in ladies’ matters.”
“I may read anything at all?” My mood brightened at this concession on his part.
“The library is yours.”
“Well, I promise not to corrupt my mind by reading the Papist literature.”
“See to it that you don’t,” said Father, “or I shall be forced to deliver you to the Magistrate on charges of Popery and sedition.”
“And I will denounce you for possession of forbidden books, treasonous to the Crown.”
We both laughed.
“Oh Father, I do love you.”
“And I wish that necessity did not force me to send you away. Though it still be two years hence, I cannot imagine that you will be leaving here. This house will be very empty without you.”
He turned away again and pretended there was something in his eye.
“Now I must attend to business matters in town,” he said presently, “and will not return until late. Will you be all right alone? Mrs Jones will only stay until two o’clock, you know.”
“I will be just fine. Besides, Bronwyn has promised to call this evening after her visit with Edward. You have probably heard that Uncle Gareth is allowing them to marry.”
“Yes. A fine lad, from a good family of solid tradesmen.”
“But not good enough for Bronwyn. She’s a Llewellyn too and shouldn’t have to marry some common silversmith’s apprentice.”
“Perhaps not, but Gareth’s means are even less than our own. You should be thankful that we have Margaret looking out for our interests. Being the twenty-fifth Duke of Caerfyrddin is not entirely without advantages.”
“That’s exactly what Bronwyn would say.”
After Father had departed, I wandered into the library. While I was horrified at the thought of being instructed by my dour Aunt Gwyneth, the possibility of having free access to this treasure-trove of knowledge was tempting indeed. Besides, there was no real alternative. If Father had decided to dismiss Mr Smythe, then nothing could change his mind. At least I had already learned the essentials from him: the trivium of grammar, rhetoric and logic, as well as the necessary grounding in Latin and French. Father had also insisted that the old schoolmaster pay close attention to my English diction, clearly because he deemed the Welsh accent to be detrimental to future matrimonial prospects.
Standing in the middle of the library, I remained motionless for several minutes surveying the carved oaken bookcases, full to overflowing with books, maps, parchments, and even the odd papyrus scroll Father had bought from a dealer of antiquities in London, who claimed they were Egyptian, though I held them to be forgeries from Whitechapel. Until this moment there had never been sufficient opportunity to really see the library as a whole, as my furtive forays into the forbidden room hadn’t allowed more than the quick appropriation of a particular volume before I was discovered. Now the full implication of my new-found freedom began to dawn on me: I could read anything here, provided I understood the language of course, and could even sit in the comfortable armchair instead of having to hide my reading under the bed-clothes in my room.
Where should I begin? The Roman histories I already knew from previous clandestine raids. Belles-lettres perhaps? There were plenty of French novels and books of poetry in Italian, which was similar enough to Latin that it was at least roughly comprehensible. Or would it be better to delve into scientific matters? Without Mr Smythe, I would have to learn the quadrivium – arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music theory – entirely on my own. Then again, perhaps I should read about the far-flung corners of the world. A whole section of the library contained German treatises on geography, Dutch books about the East Indies, and Spanish catalogues of the flora and fauna in South America. These were interesting subjects to be sure, but unfortunately closed to me, for I had yet no command of these languages.
One bookshelf was enclosed by a glass front – to keep out the dust, I supposed. The books within appeared to be very old, as they did not have fine bindings like the others. To my dismay, the case was locked. However, since Father had said I might read any book in the library, I interpreted his permission to include these as well and searched for the key. Predictably, it was in the secret compartment of his secrétaire – though I couldn’t imagine why it was called that, since the hiding-place was so obvious that I had already discovered it at the age of six.
With key in hand, I returned to the glass door. Opening it, I perceived immediately that my initial supposition had been false: instead of keeping the dust out, the door rather seemed to have kept it in. Coughing through the cloud which arose when I lifted out the first tomes, I could see that these books had not been disturbed for a very long time, perhaps centuries. As gently as possible, I opened one of the smaller volumes, fearing that it might crumble to dust in my hands. To my surprise, however, it showed no signs of age whatsoever, as the pages were made not of paper but of fine vellum, the soft skin of young lambs.
My eyes followed the delicate curves ornamenting the capital letters and came to rest on marvellous miniature paintings depicting birds, animals, and…Churchmen dressed in bishops’ robes! No wonder the case was locked – it contained Papist literature! In my hands was a truly forbidden book, which made me all the more eager to decipher the cryptic letters I recognised as spelling Latin words. Turning to the beginning, I puzzled out the first line of text.
My disappointment was profound. This was merely the initial verse in the Book of Genesis. Strictly speaking, possession of a Latin Bible was an offence, but certainly not a very exciting one, so I rummaged through the remaining shelves for something really dangerous, setting free more dust clouds in the process. There were several Bibles and other prayer books, some with the most beautiful illuminations, but nothing that I could brandish before Father’s nose in triumph: This is your undoing, sir! You are apprehended and charged with possession of Popish heresies and slanders against the Church of England. To the dungeon with you!
After some time, I found a book which appeared different from all the others. It had a worn leather binding and was secured by a massive seal bearing the Llewellyn crest. Unable to restrain my curiosity, I broke the seal and examined the pages. This manuscript was written in Latin as well, but in coarse cursive handwriting very unlike the chiselled letters in the liturgical books. Furthermore, there were many different hands present, suggesting that it was a journal of some sort. With some difficulty, I worked out the title: Historia Leolinorum de antiquitate ad aetatem nostram. A family history! I doubted that Father even knew about it.
The first entries had been made in the twelfth century, during the generation of Owain Gwynedd ap Gruffydd, who titled himself King of Wales and was grandfather to Llywelyn the Great. Picking my way through the earliest parts of the text, I came upon a lengthy passage describing a lupum insanum which had terrorised the countryside in the year 1166, killing more than twenty people. Strangely, the chronicler associated this mad-wolf with what he called a maledictionem familiae, a circumstance I found oddly unsettling, although family curses must have seemed quite commonplace to the superstitious mind of the Middle Ages.
Turning to the back of the book, I saw that the final pages were dated 1648, exactly a century ago. It seemed peculiar that the history ended there. Then something else struck my eye: the name Andronica. I read in horror that a woman bearing this name had been convicted of witchcraft and burnt at the stake. Just imagining it caused a knot to form in my stomach. Quickly finding the beginning of this entry, I studied it in detail.
The chronicle told of Rhioganedd Llewellyn, the twenty-first Duke of Caerfyrddin, and his young wife Anwyn, who had died in childbirth in the year 1610. Anwyn – that was my own mother’s name! Shortly before her confinement, Anwyn announced that she carried a girl-child and insisted that the infant be named Andronica. This was regarded as an ill omen, though the writer (evidently Rhioganedd himself) expressed his hope that the sinister fate which had befallen the others of that name would not be repeated in his daughter’s case.
What others? I thought.
A subsequent entry described how the child Andronica had been befriended in her tenth year by an unusual white-haired woman, who appeared neither young nor old and was revered as a healer by the local population. This woman, known only as Lysandra, took Andronica into her care, becoming both teacher and confidante. Andronica insisted on Lysandra’s company day and night, much to the displeasure of the family, who held her in suspicion of witchcraft. Upon reaching the age of thirteen, in the year of Rhioganedd’s second marriage, Andronica journeyed against her father’s objections to Ffestiniog in the north of Wales to visit Lysandra’s people. When she returned to Caerfyrddin some months later without Lysandra, Andronica was hardly recognisable, as she had grown into the flower of womanhood much beyond her years. Henceforth she had many suitors, but would take none of them.
In the meantime, Rhioganedd’s first-born son, Baeddan, arrived in the summer of 1625 and commanded the family’s attentions for a time. The following spring, Lysandra reappeared, and the family observed an “unnatural familiarity” between the two women. Soon afterwards, they departed from Caerfyrddin. Andronica was not seen again until September of 1648, when she returned unexpectedly, in an unkempt and emaciated state.
The chronicler was ambiguous about subsequent events, but only a month later Andronica was put to death for witchcraft, her half-brother Baeddan setting the blaze himself. The final sentences of the account were written in Welsh:
Thus endeth the History of Llewellyn. Would that it had never begun, for we are a wretched and accursed race. By order of my father Rhioganedd, the twenty-first Duke of Caerfyrddin, I set my seal on this, the fifth day of October, in the Year of Our Lord 1648. May God have mercy upon us all.
Reading the date, I shuddered. Today was 5th October 1748. To think that something so horrible happened in this very place, and on this very day a century ago. But what exactly did happen? The text was frightfully vague about the particulars. Perhaps there were clues earlier in the chronicle, as the writer had mentioned other women named Andronica and suggested that fate was repeating itself.
For the next three hours, I scanned the ancient manuscript for further mentions of my name, eventually finding references to five different individuals. Each had been christened Andronica at the urging of her mother – who at least twice was also named Anwyn. In every case, the mother had died during childbirth. The stories were not very specific about what had happened to my historical namesakes, saying only that they had left Caerfyrddin at an early age, sometimes with an older female companion of unusual appearance.
Perhaps the most disturbing of these accounts – apart from the witch-burning – was a legend, put into writing during the fourteenth century, about the very first Andronica. According to the tale, she was a young Druid priestess who had lived a millennium before the coming of the Romans. This Andronica was evidently the daughter and granddaughter of a long line of priestesses, much loved and respected by her people. Like other Druids, she possessed secrets of nature lost to us today, and was able to see the truth behind illnesses, giving her the ability to heal merely by look or touch. At the height of her powers, however, the priestess Andronica had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The chronicler said that she had delved too deeply into the darkest secrets of Nature, finally becoming part of it herself.
As I read these words, I was again reminded of my Dream, in which I myself was one with Nature, in the form of wild animals running through the forest. Although it had accompanied me since my earliest childhood, I had never understood the meaning of my Dream, which contained so many disturbing images of life and death incomprehensible to a young girl. Nevertheless, I could not help but think that the Dream was somehow associated with this obscure legend and with the other disquieting stories contained in the Historia Leolinorum.
Contemplating these matters, I suddenly perceived that the room had grown quite dark around me, which seemed very odd, as I had been reading easily without the aid of a candle. At the same time, I noticed a gnawing discomfort in my bowels, so I headed for the kitchen in the hope of finding something edible there. Mrs Jones had long since gone for the day, but it was her custom to leave food for Father when he was absent from the regular mealtime. Tonight there was a venison pie on the sideboard. So great was my hunger that I consumed it greedily, not even thinking to save anything for Father. After the fact, looking at the empty dish, I was surprised to have eaten the entire pie, since I did not usually have such a prodigious appetite.
I made some chocolate and went to the sitting room to await Bronwyn’s arrival. On the way, I stopped in the library to collect the family history, intending to read the accounts again more carefully in case I had missed anything of importance. For another hour I sat, pondering over the scrawled markings that passed for penmanship in former times. All the while, my intestinal distress continued to grow, gradually becoming a dull ache in my lower abdomen.
The discomfort eventually became so distracting that I stopped reading and went to sit by the fire, hoping that the heat would relieve the pain. Before long, the warmth and my full stomach made me drowsy. As I slipped away into sleep, I could sense that the Dream was coming.
It is early evening and I am standing in a forest clearing with my mother and the others of the herd. I am some kind of animal, perhaps a deer. It has been a warm spring day and the forest is fragrant with the smells of growing things. The sun has long since disappeared behind the trees, though the clouds are still glowing brightly against the darkening sky. For a moment, I find it strange that the sunset has no colour, but vision is the least of my senses, as mine is a world of hearing. I am now surrounded by many familiar sounds: the reassuring murmur of my mother’s breathing, the gentle rustling of leaves in the breeze, and that peculiar chirping which birds make after they have found their roost for the night.
Abruptly my mother and the others become still, listening intently for something they have heard in the forest. All at once, they leap into the air and bolt away in panic. My own ears have perceived nothing, but instinctively I run after the herd. Their pace quickens and I must struggle to keep up, as the thick underbrush makes it difficult to move quickly. Being the youngest, I do not possess the speed and agility of the others. They take no heed of me, but fly headlong through the wood.
After a short while I lose sight of the others, but can easily follow the sound as they crash through the dense growth of the forest floor. At the same time, I strain to hear the cause of their fright. Soon I perceive it, a sound I have never heard before. It is a silent sound, little more than a vibration in the air. Something is behind me, moving quickly but in almost total silence. Its approach is more felt than heard, except for the occasional snap of a twig as it passes.
I am now running for my life. If only I can gain the main trail before the sound overtakes me, then I can make for the stream where the water will put my pursuer off the scent. Still the silence gains on me, and others have joined it. There is a second moving to my left, and a third to my right, forcing me away from the path. I now recognise this silence to be the sound of Death approaching.
Fleeing in mortal terror, I break through a final wall of brush and burst upon the trail leading to the stream and safety. When I lift my head, however, I find that Death is waiting in the form of yellow eyes and sharp teeth. There is a brief moment of pain as a powerful bite snaps my spine, and then everything goes black.
When the darkness lifts, I have changed places with the predator and can taste blood in my mouth. I open my jaws and a young deer falls dead to the ground. Before I can begin to devour it, however, the others emerge silently from beneath the trees onto the path. They are winded from the chase, but they have done well, driving our prey straight into the trap. We have always hunted thus, with three to pursue and one to wait. It is the way of our kind.
As the others settle down to feed on the carcass, I become the deer once again and can sense teeth and claws tearing into my entrails. Though already dead, I feel every moment of my own disembowelment. Then the blackness envelops me a second time.
The gloom disperses to reveal a familiar place, a great city made of marble. It is night, and the warm air is redolent with the scent of jasmine. There is a trickling sound of water nearby, perhaps from a small fountain. I stand between tall, fluted columns, waiting anxiously for someone.
In the distance, I hear shouting and the echo of running feet on the pavement. Frightened, I hurry to the other side of the colonnade, searching for a place to hide. Seconds later, a dozen soldiers armed with the short swords of legionnaires enter the courtyard. They are searching for me. The weapons of the three foremost warriors are different from the others. Instead of dull iron, they gleam of silver in the moonlight, and I know that their thrust will be deadly.
There is movement behind me, and a woman’s voice calls my name. I turn and see her – my Companion, my eternal beloved. She is so beautiful, with her snow-white hair and fierce amber eyes. She calls for me again, motioning that I should flee with her. But it is too late, and the pursuers have surrounded me. As three silver swords pierce my breast, the last thing I see are the tears on my Companion’s face.
I sink now into a darkness from which there is no return. At first, there is only nothingness, but gradually I perceive two yellow eyes in the distance – eyes so like my own, yet older and wiser. As I gaze into them, they gradually grow larger, and I begin to fall. The Eyes grow ever larger, and I plunge ever faster. Soon I am plummeting as if from a great height, and the Eyes have grown so large that they fill my entire being. Finally there is nothing else in the universe except her Eyes, and I am falling forever.
Then a hand touches mine, and I wake with a start.
“Andronica, wake up.” Bronwyn was shaking my hand. “You were talking in your sleep, repeating something about ‘eyes’ again and again. Was it that recurring nightmare you mentioned?”
I was surprised to find myself on the floor of the sitting room, since the last things I remembered were forests and ancient marble palaces. Gradually the events of the Dream came back to me: the chase and the kill, death and disembowelment, then the swords and the Eyes. Something had been different, however, a detail I had never before perceived clearly. The woman in the Dream had white hair. This immediately reminded me of Lysandra, the companion of the last Andronica described in the Historia Leolinorum.
“It was my Dream sure enough,” I reflected, “but for the first time I noticed the woman’s hair…”
“What woman? I thought you said the nightmare was about wild animals.”
“It is, mostly, and quite horrible. But near the end a woman appears who seems extremely familiar to me, as if we have known each other forever. And now I could see that she has pure white hair.”
“So she is an old woman, like Edward’s great-grandmother?”
“Not at all. She is very beautiful. Her eyes are the same colour as mine, but her hair is like snow. I’ve never told anyone about the Dream before, not even Father. There’s something about it which seems so real. I can actually feel what it’s like to die.”
“That’s cheerful,” said Bronwyn. “But if you don’t mind, I’m not in the mood to talk about death. Edward and I have spent the most wonderful day together.”
“How nice for you.” I really had no desire to hear about Edward again and stared listlessly into the fire.
“It’s not like you to be so glum, Andronica. Are you still angry about your father’s plans that you should go to London?”
“I suppose so, but that’s not the reason. I’m not feeling very well today. It’s probably from the shock this morning.”
“You mean the incident with the dogs?”
“And what happened shortly afterwards. I came back here to the stable, as I wanted to go riding with Ptolemy. When I entered, the horses went mad exactly as the hounds had done earlier. Ptolemy almost trampled me to death.”
“That’s awful,” said Bronwyn. “Were you hurt?”
“Fortunately not, thanks to Father, who rescued me just in time. I’ve not felt quite right ever since, and it’s getting worse.”
“Well, here’s something to cheer you up,” she said, holding out her hand. “Edward gave me this ring today as a symbol of our betrothal. He made it himself in his grandfather’s workshop.”
“It’s lovely,” I said absently whilst inspecting the ring. It was a simple wrought-silver setting containing a small green garnet. I felt vaguely jealous that Bronwyn would soon belong to someone else, and she was obviously disappointed that I wanted to hear nothing more about her precious Edward, so we sat in silence for a while.
“What have you got there?” asked Bronwyn finally, eyeing the family history suspiciously. “That’s not Popish literature, is it? You are always trying to find forbidden books in Uncle Kendrick’s library. Have you been sneaking about in there again?”
“Believe it or not, this afternoon Father gave me permission to use the library freely. I found this in a locked case, along with some Catholic liturgical books. Though the text is all in Latin, there’s nothing treasonous here. It’s a history of the Llewellyn clan, and quite ancient. The book was sealed shut, apparently because of a scandal in the last century involving one of our ancestors, so I’m certain that not a living soul today knows anything about it.”
“And what have you learned thus far? Are we really descended from the first King of Wales?”
“Yes, not that there was ever any doubt. The book starts just before the age of Llywelyn the Great and goes right up to the year 1648. But here’s the odd thing. Did you know that there have been at least six girls named Andronica in our clan, including me? And all of them seem to have gotten into some kind of trouble. The last was burned as a witch on this very day exactly one hundred years ago. Can you imagine? I feel quite ill just thinking about it.”
Bronwyn began leafing through the book, which was entirely pointless, since she could barely read English let alone Latin.
“You can actually understand this? It looks like chicken-scratching to me.”
“Well, it is somewhat difficult, but only because the style of handwriting is unfamiliar. The text itself is simple enough, as the writers hadn’t mastered the finer points of Latin. Even Julius Caesar’s prose was more elegant than this.”
She put down the book and pouted.
“Oh Andronica, must you always show off your education? It’s not my fault that Mother wouldn’t hire a tutor for me. She is not as liberal-minded as your father.”
“You call him liberal-minded? Today he told me that Mr Smythe will be released from service at the end of the year, so that I can learn women’s matters from your mother.”
An expression of shock crossed Bronwyn’s face briefly, but family loyalty prevented her from saying aloud what she might have been thinking.
“I am sorry to hear that Mr Smythe will be leaving,” she said diplomatically, “because you really have learnt a great deal from him, but Mother will teach you important things as well. You have spent entirely too much time in the company of Uncle Kendrick, and have not had the benefit of a proper ladies’ education.”
“If I hear that expression once more, I’ll go as mad as the dogs and horses. Perhaps I need some music to calm my nerves. Would you like to hear something on the harpsichord by Mr Handel?”
I made to stand up, but a wave of pain and nausea struck me such that I groaned aloud. Bronwyn was instantly alarmed.
“You are ill,” she said, her voice suddenly full of concern. “This is certainly neither the result of a shock nor the effect of reading old Latin books. Where is the pain? Have you eaten anything in the past hour?”
“Here is where it hurts,” I said, pointing to my lower abdomen, “and yes, I ate a whole venison pie a little while ago. But the pain is not in my stomach – it’s further down. The feeling is like wind in the bowels, but duller, and it comes in waves.”
“Sounds to me like you’re getting the flowers,” said Bronwyn.
“You know…the flowers. Menses.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Have you never bled before? My God, has no one told you?”
I simply gave her a blank look and shrugged my shoulders. Another wave of pain came, and I almost doubled over.
“Andronica come, please sit down.” She helped me onto the sofa. “Poor girl, you really have been around men too long. There are some things which you will learn only from another woman.”
Bronwyn then proceeded to explain how I would bleed a few days every month for the next thirty years or so, and that it was normal for the flowers to be accompanied by short temper and cramping pain. I was horrified.
“How appalling,” I said after the anatomy lesson. “Do you mean to say that I will suffer this for the rest of my life?”
“Well, it does generally cease sometime after the age of forty, if you live that long. And of course it also stops when you are with child.”
I pointedly ignored the last remark, since thoughts of childbirth always made me think of my own mother’s death.
“There’s nothing which can be done to prevent it?”
“Unfortunately not,” she said. “There are powders and tonics which can help reduce the pain a little, but not the bleeding. Speaking of which, I had better get you something to use as a napkin. We don’t want this fine sofa soaked with blood.”
Bronwyn left the room in search of a suitable cloth.
Whilst waiting for her return, I considered what was happening to me. Somehow I had always assumed that the process of becoming an adult was simply a matter of growing larger and perhaps a bit wiser. Naturally, I was aware of the physical distinctions between boys and girls, but now I was being confronted with one of the most significant differences of all, and nobody had ever bothered to tell me about it. I was certain that additional unpleasant surprises would be forthcoming.
Bronwyn returned with one of the rags Mrs Jones used to dry the dishes.
“Here, bind this between your legs,” she said, “so that it won’t show when the bleeding starts.”
Another wave of pain coursed through my abdomen. Bronwyn hesitated for a moment, considering whether or not to say something.
“There is a little trick which can help ease the cramping for a while,” she whispered, as if someone might be listening. “All you need do is pleasure yourself.”
I gave her another vacant look.
“Have you never…?” Bronwyn raised her eyebrows pleadingly. “Must I explain this to you also?”
My expression remained blank.
“Very well,” she said. “You take your fingers and… No. It will be easier simply to show you than try explaining it. Now just watch me, and do as I do.” Bronwyn settled back on the sofa and raised her dress. The binding between her legs showed a small brownish stain. “Here you see my napkin, which has a little blood now, as my flowers are almost past.”
She pulled the cloth away to reveal a large patch of dark hair. I stared in astonishment and felt a certain thrill at the sight.
“I don’t suppose you have ever seen a grown woman’s cunny before, have you? This hair is normal as well. I warrant that in a few months’ time you will sprout a thatch here too, and that your breasts will start to swell.”
Bronwyn began massaging herself gently, and motioned that I should do the same.
“It helps if you think of a boy you fancy,” she said. “I need only to imagine Edward fondling me, and my cunny gets wet.”
I was completely at a loss, having never fancied any boy in the way she clearly meant. Nevertheless, I tried to imitate her motions. After a few minutes, Bronwyn began to sigh. I stopped my own efforts – not least because my parts were so dry that the rubbing was itself painful – and watched in fascination.
The glow from the candles and the fireplace added to the growing flush on her cheeks, and Bronwyn seemed to transform before my eyes, becoming the very essence of femininity, like some primordial Celtic goddess. Contemplating this lovely creature caused my pulse to quicken, and it stirred a powerful longing in my breast. Bronwyn was so beautiful that I felt an overwhelming desire to kiss her. The power of this urge was frightening to me, so unexpectedly had it arisen.
As Bronwyn climaxed, her whole body appeared to shudder and she let out a cry sounding more like one of the farm animals than a human being. Was this also part of becoming a woman, to lose control of one’s body and mind? This too frightened me, for I sensed that my own female essence would prove to be altogether different from Bronwyn’s. Again I was reminded of the Dream and of the pursuit through the forest, in the roles of both predator and prey. Which was I, and which was she?
I had been observing Bronwyn so intently that I had failed to notice the wetness seeping between my legs. Now I reached down with my hand and felt the warm liquid pooling on the towel, which I had fortunately placed on the sofa before beginning our little exercise. Raising my hand, I saw that it was covered with bright red blood.
“There you see? It’s happening already.” Bronwyn had recovered her wits and was binding her napkin again. “You’ve got your first flowers, which means that tonight you have become a woman. I think this is cause for a celebration. Have you any French wine in the house? For medicinal purposes only, of course – it will help you sleep and may take the edge off the cramping pain.”
“There’s some claret in the cellar,” I replied tersely.
After Bronwyn went off in search of the wine, I stared at my hand. The blood glistened in the light from the fireplace, making it appear an even more brilliant crimson. After a moment, I reached down below my cunny and let the fluid collect in my palm. Again I raised my hand, turning it from side to side and watching as the blood dripped onto the towel. Then I brought my fingers up and sniffed. On impulse, I tasted the blood.
At once, the room went dark and my head swam. I thrust my entire hand into my mouth and sucked the fingers dry of blood, then reached down with the other hand to collect more. The pain in my abdomen gave way to voracious hunger. I picked up the blood-soaked towel, heedless of the stain which had already spread through to the sofa below, and began chewing upon it.
As I gnawed on the cloth, the room slowly changed. Where a moment before it had gone dark, now everything was becoming bright as day. At the same time, the colour was draining away, as if the redness of the fire were being absorbed into the towel I held between my teeth.
Then something snapped inside me.
* * *
I found myself tangled within a soft covering which constricted my movements. Pulling at it with my teeth, I managed to tear myself free. I sprang down to the ground and stood for a moment, swaying unsteadily as if having just awakened from a long sleep. I shook myself and took stock of my situation. It appeared that I was in an odd sort of cave with a flat wooden floor and very smooth walls. The taste of blood was in my mouth. From the scent on the air, there was prey nearby. I was very hungry. Padding over to a dark opening in one of the walls, I stopped to listen carefully. From a distant part of the cave came the sounds of an animal moving. As the noise grew louder, I retreated behind an obstacle and waited. The hunt began.
Soon the animal appeared, a strange thing on two legs. It smelled female. The creature stood motionless for a moment, producing an odd sound from her small mouth. I intended to circle around to the left, and then leap for the throat to make a quick kill. In my unsteadiness, however, I stumbled against the obstacle and made a deafening noise. Alerted, the animal turned to face me and emitted a high-pitched cry that pained my ears. She dropped something to the ground which crashed and transformed into a foul liquid and what appeared to be many small pieces of ice. As I lunged for the creature’s jugular, the sharp ice cut into in my paws, causing me to miss the mark. Instead of the throat, I caught one of the forelegs. A quick twist of my head severed the lower joint, which I swallowed whole. The animal gave another piercing cry and fled. There was a loud bang and she simply disappeared.
Following in close pursuit, I ran full into a barrier blocking my way, though it had not been present an instant before. Now I turned back and entered the dark opening in the other wall, seeking a way around this obstruction. I found myself in a passageway so narrow that it made me feel intensely uncomfortable. Through another opening on the right I saw moonlight and moved in that direction. This place was confining as well, so I ran swiftly towards the moonlight and freedom. Abruptly, my snout encountered a barely-seen barrier. It made a loud noise as I crashed through, and I felt sharp stabs of pain about the ears and flanks. Outside, I landed on soft grass under an open sky and was glad to have escaped the strange cave.
In the distance, I could hear the cries of my prey as she lurched through the forest. This was certainly the loudest creature I had ever hunted. She would be easy to catch, even without help from my Sisters. Then it occurred to me: where were they? I called to them, but received no answer. Quickly picking up the scent of the animal’s blood on the grass, I entered the wood and called again. Still there was no response. I would have to play both parts in the hunt – the chaser and the waiter.
My prey was evidently heading for some lights visible through the trees ahead. I passed to her right and made just enough sound that she would sense my presence and veer to the left, away from the lights and towards where I knew there would be a clearing. Then I ran swiftly and silently ahead, making a wide circle around the creature, reaching the clearing well before her.
The two-legged animal entered the glade a few moments later, moving clumsily and stumbling every few steps. She was coming straight towards me. I waited until the last possible second and then sprang. This time, my lunge for the creature’s throat was accurate, but I misjudged the strength of my jaws and removed her head entirely. The carcass fell to the ground twitching, whilst the head landed a short distance away. Dying eyes watched me as the mouth moved in a silent cry. This sight was somehow disturbing, but I was too famished to consider it further. The time had come to feed.
Pushing back the animal’s odd fur with my snout, I tore greedily at the tender flesh between her legs. Soon I came to the inner organs and ate my fill. Sated from the steaming entrails, I sat back on my haunches and called for my Sisters to feed as well. The silence of the forest told me that they would not come. I was alone.
I contemplated the carcass lying before me. There was plenty of meat left, so I decided to hide the remains to feed upon again later. Taking the thing’s peculiar hide into my muzzle, I pulled the torso out of sight into the underbrush. For some reason, it seemed proper to replace the fur neatly in the places where it had been pushed aside.
Satisfied that the meat was sufficiently hidden, I returned to the now-unmoving head in the clearing, cracked open the skull with my teeth, and lapped out the tasty brains. The rest of the head had not enough meat to warrant hiding, so I left it for the crows.
Now I made off in a direction away from the lights and sought a place to sleep. Crossing a small stream, which would put any possible pursuers off my scent, I found a deep pile of leaves and settled down to rest. I thought to lick the wounds in my paws, but found that they had healed already. Satisfied, I soon fell into a dreamless sleep.
I awoke in a soft bed, comfortably warm and drowsy, as if I had just eaten a full meal. From somewhere far away confused sounds could be heard, which I gradually recognised as the voices of men and the barking of dogs. One voice was issuing orders.
“Cover that at once, before anyone else sees the condition of the corpse. There’s no use if rumours begin to spread about a monster on the loose.”
“Yes, m’lord. But why would an animal deliberately replace her clothing after…feeding?”
“Let us not waste time with useless speculation,” said the voice. “My daughter is still out here somewhere. Take those men and search south of the stream. The rest of you follow me. Gareth?”
“Leave me be, Kendrick,” rasped another voice in a harsh whisper. “Just leave me be.”
As I listened to this conversation – easily audible despite the distance of at least a hundred yards – my head began to clear. The last thing I could remember was talking with Bronwyn in the sitting room. No, that was not quite the last thing. I had been dreaming. It was like my Dream, but the hunt had been different in some way. Vaguely I remembered walking on sharp ice which had cut my feet and being trapped in a series of frightening caves. The voices grew nearer, and I caught the musky scent of wet dogs.
Something was not right.
Opening my eyes, I found myself in the midst of a thicket, half-buried in a pile of rotting leaves. Though the sun was invisible, by the light it appeared to be about mid-day. A freezing drizzle was falling. Looking down, I perceived that my body was naked and covered with clotted blood. I screamed.
Within seconds, a half-dozen dogs and several men reached the place where I lay. The latter I recognised as Uncle Gareth’s labourers.
“Lord Llewellyn,” cried one of them, “come here quickly. I’ve found your daughter, and she appears to be badly hurt.”
Cowering in the leaves, I began to panic. How had I gotten into the woods? Why was I naked? Where had all the blood come from? And where was Bronwyn?
“Andronica, thank God!” It was Father’s voice. “Smithson, run to the house and bring some woollen blankets!”
Turning on my side, I saw Father approach, followed by Uncle Gareth. Both were carrying pistols in their belts, and my uncle’s face was ashen and expressionless. His haggard appearance at once made me apprehensive.
Bronwyn, I thought, something terrible has happened to her.
Father covered my body with his cloak and took me into his arms. Wordlessly, he carried me some distance through the woods and across the stream, continuing along the path until we reached a clearing. There stood a hand-cart beside a thing draped with sack-cloth. A smaller object, similarly covered, lay nearby.
“My daughter has lost a great deal of blood,” said Father. “We must get her out of the cold without delay, or she shall surely die as well.”
“Please don’t worry about me,” I said. The sound of my own voice startled me, as if it belonged to someone else. “I am neither hurt nor suffering from chill, but I do fear for Bronwyn’s safety. You must find her at once.”
Uncle Gareth stared at me as if I had spoken the foulest blasphemy and fell to the ground sobbing. Father laid a comforting hand on my head.
“Your cousin Bronwyn is dead,” he said softly. The words struck me like a hammer-blow.
“What happened? Where is she? I must see her!”
“No, Andronica, you must not see her,” said Father. “She was slain by an animal, and her body has been badly disfigured. Do not concern yourself about it. Right now I am more worried about you, as you are clearly suffering from fever. I shall send for a physician immediately.”
My uncle was still kneeling in the mud, and the labourers had begun putting the greater pile of sack-cloth onto the cart. One of the dogs was rooting about the lesser heap. Another came and sniffed; then the two started bickering over it. They tugged at the cloth, pulling it away to reveal a small black furry object. The larger of the hounds chased the other away and began gnawing at the thing.
The commotion had attracted my uncle’s attention, who now came to his feet. When he saw what was happening, his eyes widened and his expression became enraged. Uttering a bitter oath in Welsh, he drew his pistol and shot the hound dead.
“For pity’s sake Gareth,” said Father, “it’s not the dog’s doing.”
At that moment, the identity of the small object under the sack-cloth became clear to me. I struggled free from Father’s grip, slipped from beneath the cloak, and ran naked to where Bronwyn’s head lay upon the grass.
A knot formed in the pit of my stomach when I gazed upon it. The dark hair was still bound with a ribbon, now smeared with blood, and in place of her blue eyes were gaping holes where the crows had already feasted. The top of her skull was missing and the cranium was empty.
I turned towards the cart. Father rushed forward to prevent my looking, but I was the faster. Raising the sack-cloth, I found a headless body wearing Bronwyn’s favourite dress. Before anyone could stop me, I pushed the dress aside to reveal a most gruesome sight. Were it not for the two perfectly formed breasts which were virtually all that remained of the torso, the mangled thing was hardly recognisable as having once been human.
Now the knot in my stomach exploded and I vomited. This was no ordinary puke, however, for out came an enormous quantity of blood. Nothing else, only blood. I retched again and expelled more of the horrific gore.
Father reached me and draped his cloak about my shoulders once more. All the warmth had suddenly gone out of my body, and I began shivering from the cold. Father gave instructions that one of the men should hurry down to Caerfyrddin and fetch Doctor Vaughan, relaying the message that I was feverish and bleeding from internal injuries. He then carried me back to our house, whilst the other men trundled the cart bearing Bronwyn’s remains away in the opposite direction. Uncle Gareth remained standing in the clearing as if he had turned to stone.
* * *
Doctor Vaughan had been our family’s physician since before I was born. He had attended my mother in her final hours and was now examining me, obviously apprehensive that he might have to inform Father of my impending demise as well. For his part, Father stood silently in the corner, waiting pensively for the diagnosis.
“Do you feel discomfort when I press here?” asked the doctor, prodding my abdomen.
“Not the slightest,” I replied.
He repeated the procedure in several places, asking each time if I experienced any pain. With every negative reply, the doctor’s expression gradually changed from concern to puzzlement.
“Lord Llewellyn, I am entirely at a loss to explain this,” he said finally. “Though your daughter was clearly suffering from fever when she was found, her body temperature is now quite normal. There is no evidence whatsoever of internal injury, nor of any infectious disease. Nevertheless, as a precaution, she should remain in bed under constant watch for the next three days and be given no solid food.”
“I am much relieved to hear it,” said Father. “Can you be persuaded to remain the night, in case Andronica suffers a relapse?”
“Of course. It will be a pleasure to serve Your Grace’s family, as always. But first I must send word to my wife not to expect me before tomorrow morning at the earliest.”
After the doctor had left the room, Father sat beside me on the bed and began formulating a question. With a gesture of my hand, I bade him to remain silent.
“I know what you wish to ask, Father, but there are no ready answers forthcoming. I can remember nothing between Bronwyn’s arrival yesterday evening and this afternoon when you found me in the wood.” It seemed prudent not to mention the dream about the cave and the sharp ice on the floor. “How did you know where to look for me?”
“When I returned last night at about half-past ten,” Father began, “I discovered the sitting room in a frightful condition. There was blood on the sofa and the floor, which was covered with shards from a broken wine-bottle. At first, I assumed that someone had been hurt by the cut glass, though such a trifling injury could hardly account for the great quantity of blood. I called your name and Bronwyn’s, supposing you to be upstairs. When there was no reply, I searched the house.
“In the library, I found the window broken and blood on the sill. There was also what appeared to be animal hair stuck to the leaden muntins. I fetched a lantern and went to examine the ground outside the window. There were animal tracks in the grass. At the front of the house, I came across a bloody trail leading into the wood, in the direction of Gareth’s house. I surmised that one of you was seriously injured and that you had sought help from Bronwyn’s parents. When I arrived there, however, I found your aunt and uncle in a state of distress, as they had long since expected Bronwyn to return. They were all the more worried, for they had heard what sounded like the howling of wolves in the wood. We agreed that a search could only be conducted after sunrise, still some hours off, and that I should wait here in case you returned.
“When the dawn broke and there was still no sign of you, Gareth came round with several men and his hunting-dogs. First we investigated the entire house carefully, inside and out. Not surprisingly, given the animal hair I had seen before, we discovered the bloody footprints of a large canine leading from the sitting room to the library. Now comes the curious part. Nearly all the glass from the broken library window was found outside on the lawn. The muntins were bent outwards as well, so the creature must have entered the house by some other way, and exited via the library window.”
Father paused, thinking. Then he kissed me and went to the door.
“I must go into town and arrange for a hunting party to track down this beast, which is likely the same one as gave the dogs and horses such a fright yesterday. The good doctor will return presently to sit with you. Please follow his instructions to the letter and remain in bed.”
I was beside myself with grief. Bronwyn had been my only true friend, and I was just now beginning to realise that my feelings for her went deeper than mere friendship and familial affection. I could not think of her without crying and was plagued with guilt that she had been killed whilst I remained unharmed. Furthermore, a feeling troubled me that I had been somehow responsible for her death, as the memory of my enigmatic dream continued to haunt my thoughts.
* * *
After keeping close watch for more than a day, Doctor Vaughan finally took his leave the following evening. He told Father that my internal bleeding had evidently ceased – if there had been any to begin with – and that I should be expected to make a full recovery. Indeed, apart from a complete absence of hunger, I had never felt better physically.
Two days after the incident, Father announced that he had reconsidered about Mr Smythe and asked the schoolmaster to remain for another year. Only later did I learn the reason for his unusual change of mind: Aunt Gwyneth had insisted on seeing Bronwyn’s body, and the sight had driven her mad. It was unlikely that she would ever give me instruction on ladies’ matters or any other subject.
On the morning of the fourth day, I rose from my bed for the first time. Father was out with the hunting party he had organised, and Mrs Jones was in the kitchen, so I was alone in my room. No sooner had I stood upright than a burning sensation manifested in my lower intestines. Impelled by the powerful urge for a bowel movement, I reached the chamber-pot just in time. The stool began to pass and I was overcome by intense pain, as if a red-hot iron had been inserted into my nether regions. Stopping the pressure only increased the torment, so I redoubled my efforts.
When I had finally passed the agonising excrement, the air was filled with the stench of charred flesh. Fully expecting some new horror, I hesitated at first to glance down into the chamber-pot. No stretch of my imagination could have prepared me for the sight when at last I did look. Embedded in the turd gleamed Bronwyn’s silver ring, now encrusted with scorched and smoking bits of my own entrails. There was only one possible explanation for the ring’s presence there.
I had eaten my cousin.