The Heart of the Rebellion – Sian Ann Bessey

RHYS AP TUDOR BRACED HİMSELF against the ship’s bow, his eyes trained on the coastline ahead. The sky was blue, but a gusty wind filled the cog’s wide sail and whipped whitecaps onto the tips of the already choppy waves. Over the creak of the wooden hull and the slap of rope against the tall mast, Rhys could hear the nervous whinnies of the horses stabled at the rear of the ship. Although a relatively short distance, crossing the turbulent Menai Strait was known to bring the hardiest of seamen to their knees. Shifting his weight to counterbalance the tilting of the deck, Rhys glanced to his right. His brother Gwilym stood a couple feet away, watching the island of Anglesey’s familiar landmarks come into view with the same look of excitement he’d borne when he’d won his first archery contest. He must have sensed Rhys’s gaze because he turned to him and grinned. “We shall be home by nightfall, Rhys,” he shouted above the sound of the wind and waves. Rhys nodded. It had been almost three years since he and Gwilym had set foot on Anglesey, and as he watched the craggy cliffs of Penmon give way to the gently rolling hills of Llanfaes and the welcoming harbor of Beaumaris, he experienced an unexpected surge of emotion. Fighting beside Richard II in Ireland had enabled him to travel more than most Welshmen dreamed of, but for him, nowhere compared to this island off the coast of North Wales. “How far to Beaumaris Castle?” The words were spoken in English. Rhys swung around, instinctively wrapping his fingers around the handle of the dagger at his girdle. He sensed Gwilym’s movement behind him and knew that his brother was alert to any possible threat. They’d both seen too many battles.

War snuffed out men’s feelings of trust as readily as it took the lives of soldiers, and that heightened level of suspicion was not easily undone. Rhys faced the sandy-haired stranger. He’d noticed him board the ship soon before they’d set sail from Conwy, but he hadn’t seen him on deck since. He was tall and thin and appeared at least ten years younger than Rhys’s twenty-eight years. “You have business at the castle?” Rhys responded in English, working to keep his voice casual, even though he had to speak loudly to be heard over the elements. The lanky young man crossed the short distance between them on unsteady legs, his pocked complexion a sickly shade of grayish green. Staying below deck during the blustery weather had obviously not been to this passenger’s advantage. Relaxing his stance, Rhys watched as the man clutched the leather satchel hanging across his shoulder and attempted to puff out his scrawny chest. “I carry a missive from London for Lord Buckley, the Constable of Beaumaris Castle.” Rhys stared at him.

For a fleeting moment, he wondered whether the sickness brought on by rough seas had addled the fellow’s mind or whether no one had warned the neophyte that with the current political instability in the country, proclaiming the contents of his satchel to strangers— particularly Welsh strangers—was foolish, at best. It was under a year since Henry Bolingbroke had captured Richard II at Flint Castle and marched him to London to be incarcerated at the Tower of London. A mere two months later, Bolingbroke’s claim to the throne had been ratified by the English parliament, and he’d been crowned Henry IV. Since then, discontent over the new king’s repressive rule had been steadily growing amongst Welsh peasants and nobles alike. Already, the country was brimming with rumors of revolt. Given the volatile climate, it was difficult to believe Henry would risk sending a message of great import to his stronghold on Anglesey with someone so inexperienced or without an armed escort, but Rhys knew he’d be foolish to underestimate the lengths the monarch would go to gain control of North Wales. “What’s your name, lad?” “Thomas,” the young man said. “Thomas Redd.” “Well, Thomas Redd, I commend you,” Rhys said. “To carry a letter from the English king into Wales at this unsettled time takes great courage.

” Wariness filled the young man’s eyes, quickly followed by worry. “I did not claim to carry anything belonging to the king.” “True. But you did say that you are come from London.” Rhys shrugged. “And London is the official seat of the king.” Gwilym chose that moment to step forward. He stood shoulder to shoulder with Rhys, his arms folded, his eyes fixed on the young courier. If possible, Thomas’s pallor became even grayer. With anxious and fumbling fingers, he opened his satchel and withdrew a single scroll.

“You see,” he said, turning the parchment in his hand so the brothers could see the red wax seal. “’Tis a letter from my master, the Duke of Bedford. He and Lord Buckley are distant cousins.” Rhys and Gwilym exchanged a quick look. No words were needed. The seal appeared authentic, but if the letter from London was bound for Beaumaris Castle, they had to be sure of its contents. As though the heavens agreed, a rogue wave lashed the bow, instantly dousing the deck with cold, salty water. Staggering backward, Thomas raised his arm to wipe the spray from his face, and Gwilym reached for the scroll. “Watch yourself,” Gwilym called. “The water will make the ink illegible.

” Before Thomas could respond, Gwilym had broken the seal and unrolled the parchment. With horror-filled eyes, Thomas lunged for the letter. “What are you thinking? The scroll is to be read by Lord Buckley alone.” “Then you are most fortunate,” Gwilym said. He handed the parchment to Rhys. “You see. Every word can be deciphered still.” Rhys skimmed through the short missive. It was, indeed, from the Duke of Bedford, and it appeared that he was finalizing arrangements to marry Lord Buckley’s daughter. “’Tis true,” Rhys said, offering the scroll back to Thomas.

“You are truly fortunate.” The young courier snatched it from him, his hand shaking. “Fortunate? To hand Lord Buckley a letter that has already been opened?” “Why, yes.” Gwilym’s expression was deadly serious. “Not only has the ink remained dry, but you happened upon two men who speak and read English. Imagine what would have happened if illiterate Welshmen had confronted you, convinced that your letter contained instructions for the Constable of Beaumaris Castle from Henry himself. If they had believed it contained his stratagems to subdue those willing to fight against his rule in Wales, you would have been unable to prove your innocence.” He raised his eyebrows. “A broken seal is nothing when compared to a missing courier.” Thomas’s Adam’s apple bobbed a few times.

He opened his mouth, then closed it again and opened his satchel instead. Replacing the scroll, he took two steps back, and pointed over the bow. “We are almost to the harbor, and I see the castle. I shall have no difficulty finding it, so I will take my leave.” He offered an awkward bow. “Good day to you.” Rhys waited only until Thomas was beyond earshot. “Hinting at the poor lad’s demise was rather heavy-handed, but it did seem to take his mind off the broken seal.” Gwilym grinned. “And it will serve him well to remember the warning.

Not all Welshmen are as noble as you and me, Rhys.” “I doubt our mother would have considered scaring a young man witless to be a noble gesture.” “Perhaps not.” Gwilym leaned against the side of the ship and stared at the English fortress dominating the small Welsh harbor before them. “But you and I both know that things would have been far messier if that letter had contained what we feared.” Rhys followed his brother’s gaze. Even though the castle that had been started by Edward I in 1295 had never been fully completed, the huge stone fortification, with its twelve towers and moated outer ward, served to maintain the threat of English domination well. Governance within the castle changed as the English kings played their favorites, but one constant remained—only those who had proven their loyalty to the crown were entrusted to its keep. “I wonder what manner of man this Lord Buckley is and how long he’s been constable at the castle,” Rhys said. Gwilym nodded.

“And I’d give a great deal to know if young Thomas uses the very same argument I gave him when he hands the constable his opened letter.” He chuckled. “I hope Lord Buckley accepts it well.” A shout from the dock signaled the splash of the ship’s anchor. Behind them, three seamen hurried across deck to see to the sail and riggings. Gwilym straightened and placed his hand on Rhys’s shoulder. “Once we reach Penmynydd, you may ask Maredudd all about the situation at the castle, and I am sure he will happily answer every question. I, however, will be too busy eating a feast fit for returning warriors to listen to any of it.” “Then I hope Maredudd has something more to offer you than oat bread.” Gwilym frowned.

“For his sake, I hope he does too.” Rhys laughed. They’d been apart for three years, and Gwilym was already slipping back into his role as the tormenting older brother. Secretly, Rhys thought he might be in for a shock. When King Richard had requested Rhys and Gwilym join his army as his personal guards, their younger brother, Maredudd, had stayed on Anglesey to maintain the Tudor family home in Penmynydd. He’d been appointed bailiff soon after their departure and had undoubtedly become more used to giving orders than receiving them. Rhys hid a smile. Watching the upcoming interactions between his two brothers promised to be quite entertaining. “Come,” Rhys said. “The horses must be as anxious as we are to quit this ship.

” They led the horses across the gangplank, mounted, and rode slowly along the harbor. A seagull stood on a wooden post, screeching at two young boys sitting on the dock, with their hooks and lines dangling in the water. A young woman stared at them wide-eyed, then bobbed a hasty curtsy, and an old fisherman dropped the net he was mending beside his coracle and got to his feet to greet them. “Good day, Elfed,” Rhys said, reining his mount, Castan, to a halt. “And to you, Master Rhys.” The fisherman gave him an almost toothless smile. “’Tis right good to see you home.” He looked over at Gwilym. “You too, Master Gwilym.” He squinted, studying him more closely.

“Wait just a minute now; I did get you straight, didn’t I?” Gwilym grinned. “You did, indeed, Elfed.” “As alike as mussel shells, you Tudor boys, but I reckon I can still tell you apart, even after all these years.” Elfed looked immensely proud of himself, and Rhys chuckled. It was true. There was a strong family resemblance between him and his brothers. They had all inherited thick, dark hair from their father and rather distinctive blue eyes from their mother. Rhys was two years older than Gwilym, who was three years older than Maredudd, but ironically, it was Maredudd who was the tallest by a couple of inches, then came Rhys, with Gwilym bringing up a close third. A small scar ran across Rhys’s chin, thanks to a collision with the fire grate when he was a boy, and Gwilym’s nose hadn’t been straight since a nasty fistfight in his youth. But Rhys was fairly sure that the old man couldn’t see such minor details.

“It wouldn’t be because we just got off the ship carrying longbows and wearing the colors of the Tudors of Penmynydd, would it?” Rhys asked. Elfed gave a throaty laugh. “Well, I’d be lyin’ if I didn’t say those red surcoats you’ve got on were a good clue. And yer brother, Maredudd, don’t often go ridin’ around with his bow and quiver at the ready.” “Sounds like we need to set him straight, then,” Gwilym said. “Aye. You do that lad.” Elfed inclined his head toward the castle. “We never can be too careful, you know.” Rhys looked over at the castle in time to see Thomas approaching the entrance.

“What news from the castle these days, Elfed?” Elfed rubbed a worn hand over his stubbly chin. “I reckon we’re all just waitin’ to see what ’appens with this new king they’ve got in England and the rumors swirlin’ around a rebellion amongst the Welsh nobility. Nothin’ much ’as changed in the last few weeks, but that don’t mean that it won’t. I ’ave a prickly feelin’ that somethin’s in the air.” Rhys nodded. Even though the contents of Thomas’s satchel had seemed harmless, Rhys couldn’t quite shake the feeling that something menacing was looming. “I agree with you, Elfed. And I don’t suppose we’re the only ones feeling that way.” “I daresay that’s so.” The old fisherman shuffled back to the stool beside his coracle.

He looked up at the blue sky, then studied the horizon. “’Tis not so different than waitin’ for a storm to move in, is it? We see the signs in the sky, feel the pain in our bones, but until those pesky whitecaps are tossin’ boats every which way, we keep hopin’ it’ll blow on by.” Rhys glanced up at the blue skies. “Is there a storm coming?” The old man settled down on his stool and picked up the net with his gnarled hands. “The seagulls are already flyin’ low, but I reckon we’ve an hour or two afore the rain starts.” Gwilym raised a skeptical eyebrow, but Rhys knew better than to question the seasoned fisherman or the large white birds skimming the waves nearby. “Well, then, we’d best be on our way.” Elfed nodded. “I would recommend it, Master Rhys. Wouldn’t do to arrive ’ome soppin’ wet after bein’ gone all this time.

Not if you ’ave a choice leastways.” “Sound advice, Elfed,” Rhys said. “Good day to you.” Leaving the harbor, the castle, and the town of Beaumaris behind them, the brothers followed the coastal road south for about four miles before turning east toward the center of the island and the small community of Penmynydd. They were within a mile of their destination when a bank of dark, gray clouds appeared above them, and soon afterward, the first drops of rain began to fall. The ripening wheat growing in the fields nearby waved wildly in the stiffening breeze, and the hissing of raindrops hitting the leaves of the trees along the road increased in volume as they passed the familiar grove of oaks that marked the beginning of Tudor land. Urging their horses into a canter, Gwilym reached the crest of the final hill moments before Rhys. He reined his mount to a halt, waiting for Rhys to join him, and together they gazed down at the gray-stone longhouse built up against the hillside in the dell below. The slate roof glistened in the rain, and smoke from the fireplace in the upper end of the house took to the wind almost as soon as it appeared. A narrow path crossed the grass in front of the longhouse and continued to an open yard at the back, where a smaller building that served as the kitchen stood.

The two men took in the scene in silence. A dog barked, and a woman with a shawl covering her bent head ran from the kitchen to the longhouse. Rhys’s grip on the reins tightened. Over the last three years, he’d maintained composure during deadly skirmishes and in the face of ferocious armies. Yet now, with his childhood home finally in view, he found himself battling uncertainty. How much had changed at Penmynydd since he and Gwilym had left? Maredudd was undoubtedly used to being sole master of the house now. Especially since he’d taken a wife during their absence. Would the new mistress resent their unannounced return? “Who do you think that was crossing the yard?” he asked. “I could not tell,” Gwilym said. He turned to Rhys, the water dripping off his hair doing nothing to diminish the eagerness in his eyes and voice.

“But I believe ’tis time we found out.” With a clatter of hooves, they entered the small yard together. Mud was starting to form on the surface of the hard-packed ground, and the men dismounted quickly, guiding their horses to the longhouse door. Gwilym rapped on the solid wood, and seconds later, footsteps sounded from within. The latch lifted, the door swung wide, and Maredudd stood before them. “Well now,” he said, a huge grin splitting his face. “There’s a sight! I’d truly begun to wonder if you two Saeson would ever find your way back to Penmynydd again.”

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