Branwen

Branwen

Branwen

SHORT STORY

From the pages of Welsh mythology, a legendary queen, imprisoned and alone, plots her escape.

a quill on a yellow background

In the candlelight, she writes out the same words repeatedly, each time on a smaller square of parchment, pausing only to sharpen her knife and pare another shaving from the nib of the quill, before carefully charging it with an even more trifling drop of ink. With the completion of each tiny manuscript, she strains to read back the message and, dissatisfied, walks over to the hearth and burns it in the grate.

laundry icons

She forgets now, how long it is since she was sent from the court and confined to this isolated tower, only that it began soon after the birth of her son, and after the little prince was taken from her and dispatched to some distant aristocratic household, deep inside the kingdom, far away from her foreign words and influence. For weeks and months, perhaps years, she has looked out from this high window. She watches the gulls nesting among chimneypots and swallows diving between the turrets and belfries of the royal palace, and stares down on the grey sea and the rocks.

a key on a blue background

One morning there’s an error in the laundry returns, a maid’s uniform folded mistakenly between her fine gowns. Naturally, she tries it on. The fabric is coarse, the shape unflattering, but she wonders. With a cloth tied around her hair like the other girls, she cautiously opens the service door from her royal apartments and descends the spiral staircase into a labyrinth of hallways and corridors.

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Convinced she will be recognised, she at first keeps her eyes down. She soon learns not to worry. The palace attendants are all so fatigued and preoccupied, they notice only what they are expecting to see.

Carrying a bundle of sheets in her arms, sometimes a pitcher of water, she explores anterooms and waiting areas, galleries, terraces. Some chambers are filled with scientific apparatus, others with radio equipment. There is a shrine to a god whose name she does not recognise and a library under a copper dome, an armoury stacked neatly with arcane weapons. Each room is disused, sterile and crumbling quietly away to nothing.

As she ventures further into the interior of the fortress, she finds pantries and laundries, wine cellars, chandleries. Then there are the workshops where goods are produced, with terrifying devices, powered by steam, hammering tin, binding cords and weaving cloth.

a cleaver on a red background

Eventually, she arrives at the great kitchen, with its ovens and basins, boiling water, flaming stoves, and when ordered to work, she works. She scrubs tabletops and cooking pots, peels vegetables, rolls pastry. She stirs the contents of kettles and stokes fires, carries baskets and bolts of linen. From a sack filled with sunflower seeds, she slips a handful into the pocket of her tunic, a small recompense perhaps, for a day’s work.

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Before evening, she retreats back up the steps to her chambers, changes into her silk and miniver, and neatly piles the seeds on her window ledge. Then she sits alone and waits to be served the very same delicacies she has laboured to prepare.

She returns every day to wash the endless piles of roasting dishes. There are always more spits to be turned and pans to be boiled. She learns the names of all the cooks and smokes in the courtyard with the porters, and drinks coffee with waitresses, always returning back up the long stairs to her slender chairs and frescoed walls.

All the candles that have ever burned on this table and all the fires that have ever burned in this fireplace and raged in her blood, all times and places are aligned in the same time and place, and completely overcome with light.

a starling on a pea-green background

Slowly she becomes acquainted also with the birds visiting her window. She knows which ones are timid, the hungry and the curious. There are robins and sparrows, finches and warblers, and then one day comes a starling, strong and bold, his plumage shining in the sunlight, and she smiles. Given time, she thinks, he will perch on her hand, take kernels from her fingers.

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It’s ridiculous, absurd, a preposterous idea, and yet she can't help asking herself if it might somehow be possible to write a message, so small and slight, that it could be folded under those shimmering wings and carried into the sky and the clouds, and far across the sea.

When darkness comes, she returns to her writing desk and prepares an even smaller piece of parchment. She pauses for a moment, and takes up her pen.

Branwen
Short story published 2024
Based on a Welsh legend

Words and pictures
David Guest