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His Right Hand

by
S E Morgan

female-right-hand-154965999684W.jpg

Courtesy of PublicDomainArt.Net: Piotr Siedlecki

 

Crickhowell 1271

 

Sybil sighed as the wooden spindle whirled. Nimble fingers twisted thread from a mound of washed white fleece. Her back ached from the weight of the child in her belly and chilblains on her feet itched. Shouts floated up to the solar. Whoever could be foolish enough to demand entry to Crickhowell Castle on this bitterly cold winter night?

            Two pairs of footsteps sounded, climbing the stone staircase. One her steward Gwylim, puffing and panting as usual, but she didn’t recognise the other lighter step. Her maidservant opened the oak door at Gwylim’s knock and she heard her muffled gasp.

            ‘Madam, it is Hywel ap Meredith. He’s alone,’ said the maid.

 

            Sybil felt a shiver as her hands clenched, then cradled her belly. Hywel had left Wales seven months earlier for the Holy Land, riding out under a banner of red and gold beside her husband. Why would he return alone to the castle? Rumours had reached them that Prince Edward’s crusade was going badly. Their ally, King Louis of France, had died from dysentery and his army had sailed home days before the English arrived.

             The youth shuffled his feet at the sight of his lady, body tense. He gazed at the floor, unable to meet her eye.

             'Speak Hywel. Your face tells of bad news. Does Sir Grimbauld live?’

             ‘He does Madam, but my Lord is a prisoner of the Saracens. I am sent by his captors to ask you to ransom him.’

 

             Her shoulders dropped with relief; her handsome, charming husband, with his neat beard and brown curly hair, still breathed. Her eyes met those of the elderly steward in query.

             ‘Ransom, ransom? Hywel, where am I to find gold for ransom? Grimbauld spent all our coin and more, fortifying this castle, building these stone walls, along with armour and horses for his men to go on crusade. We have no gold.’

 

             The boy stayed mute.

             ‘How do they treat my husband?’ she asked.

             ‘He fares well enough for now as a knight; however, when ransom is refused, men are left to starve. Others,’ the boy’s voice dropped, ‘are castrated, then set free. The infidel Sultan Baibars is as merciless as he is proud.’

 

             Sybil winced, but a part of her thought it would serve Grimbauld right, if what she’s been told of his carousing with Prince Edward’s men was only half true. King Henry did nothing to curb his son or his entourage’s excesses.

             ‘Proud?’ she asked.

             ‘The Sultan is known as a man of honour, my lady. He treasures his reputation above all things.’

 

             Hywel still couldn’t look at her. Why? She’d known him since he’d been her father’s page. At twenty, the lad was scarcely a year younger than she. His family’s farmstead lay out on the road to Abergavenny.

 

             The boy cleared his throat. ‘Madam, your husband told the Sultan that, that…’ His voice gave out.

             ‘Yes?’

             ‘He told him he has no lands or gold, but a wife who would give her right hand for him. The sultan agreed to accept your right hand instead of treasure.’

 

             Gwylim gasped as Sybil’s eyes widened in shock.

             ‘Let me think on this matter. Hywel, go home. Your mother will be glad to see you safe. Return here in two days.’

 

             Tired beyond measure, Sybil looked at her steward. ‘What should I do, Gwilym? If only father was alive and could advise me.’

             The steward nodded. ‘Sir Hugh was a good man, my lady. We miss him. I will ask Brother Bernard to come in the morning. See if he has any ideas but, but.’

 

             They understood the hard truth; Crickhowell and the countryside around had been bled dry by Marcher Lord’s demands, they needed protection. The Welsh, led by Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, had burnt Hay Castle to the ground three years before and captured Painscastle the following summer. Both castles were a scant half day’s ride from Crickhowell. With the debts run up by Grimbauld, there was nothing to spare, there was no silver, let alone gold. Gwernvale Manor was mortgaged. Sybil got by on murage* taxes and tolls on the new timber bridge across the Usk.

 

              She didn’t sleep. Thoughts raced through her head. If only father hadn’t married her to the Pauncefoot’s handsome but extravagant younger son. Sir Hugh insisted she needed protection, but look where it had got her. Following father’s death six months earlier Sybil, the Turberville heiress of Crickhowell, had the support of her people, but no husband in Wales and precious few men to man her newly built stone walls.

 

               Grimbauld asked for her help. If she didn’t find gold to send, what life would the child in her belly have the family reputation humiliated ? If she borrowed using the castle as surety, her family would be impoverished.

She thought back to the day Grimbauld told her that Prince Edward, or ‘Ned’ as Grimbauld called him, commanded he accompany him on crusade.

 

               She’d just told that she was carrying their first child and asked, ‘How will I manage without you? Father is sick and fading. Your mother at Much Cowarn, is more than a day’s journey distant, and my cousins in Coity are far away.’

He’d stroked her blond hair and smiled fondly down at her. ‘Mother will stay a month with you before the birthing. But darling girl, these are your people. They love you. Have no fear. You’ll manage. You are my right hand. I will write to send word of our progress every month, then return with Saracen spoils beyond counting.’

 

               Two days later, her husband, the prince and one thousand knights left for the Holy Land.

Sybil fell into a fitful sleep with Grimbauld’s words as he left her, going round and round in her head. “You will manage. You are my right hand.”

 

               When the elderly priest arrived the next morning, she was ready to face him.

 

               ‘Brother Bernard, has Gwylim explained my, no, our difficult situation?’

               ‘He has my lady. I have no suggestions beyond throwing yourself on De Mortimer’s mercy.’

               ‘De Mortimer, I would rather trust a serpent. That man has neither pity nor decency. I would as soon put my faith in my husband’s infidel jailor as in Roger de Mortimer. At least Hywel tells us the Sultan has pretensions of honour.’

 

               Sybil’s expression changed, hardened. ‘Brother Bernard, after father died, you told me my mother’s body lay unsullied in their stone tomb when you laid him next to her. That her hands remained as you set them, folded in prayer, clutching her beads.’

               ‘I did, my lady. Her skin was fair and white, fingernails pearly and a ruby ring glistened her hand as if she had died yesterday, not ten years since. Perhaps she is sainted to have suffered no bodily decomposition?’

               ‘That’s as may be. She was kindly enough, but no saint to my recollection. My mother has no use for her right hand, I do. Bernard, you must sever the hand intact. We will send it to the Sultan in exchange for my husband.’

               ‘Desecrate a body, Madam, I cannot. It would be a sin.’

               ‘Can you not, Bernard? A priest who refuses their Norman lady’s command would be obliged to leave their church. My husband is a companion of Prince Edward’s, our future king. A word with your bishop would mean he’d not dare give you succour elsewhere on the Marches. You’d have to move away, deep into Wales. One who has served the Normans for so many years would have to throw themselves on to the mercy of the Welsh. The best such a man of god could hope for would be a wattle church and a tiny congregation.’

 

                She gazed at him, expression innocent, then continued, ‘Do you speak Welsh, as well as French, Father Bernard? It is a pity you’d have to leave me, as a fine new church could be built in reward for faithful service when Grimbauld is free. He expects to be in high favour with Prince Edward. I might find another priest prepared to do his lord and lady’s bidding if … if I asked the Abbot to find me one.’ Sybil’s eyes locked with her priest’s.

 

                Bernard blinked first. He mumbled, ‘A church with a stone tower and nave would be a fine thing for Saint Edmund.’

‘It would, and those relics of his you guard; the saint’s finger bone and lock of his hair, they have to have been taken from his body. No one declared that a sin. My mother would not begrudge me her hand. To sever my own and risk her grandchild’s life is unthinkable.’

 

                The old priest nodded. ‘We would have to move the tomb if you built a new church. It’s no easy thing to carry the bones of a long dead woman.’

 

                ‘This needs to be done in secret, and quickly. Hywel has to believe the hand is mine. You and Gwylim must open the tomb tonight. Take this casket.’ Sybil thrust the empty box that, in better times held family jewels, at him. ‘Tell everyone you have come to pray over me, whilst Gwylim cuts off my hand. I will scream, shout and remain in my room. You can give the casket and its contents to young Hywel, then pack him off, back to his master. He will not discover the deception until he and Grimbaud return from the Holy Land.’

 

 

Notes:

                                            

* Taxes charged for living inside a town/castles’ wall

 

Footnote: The legend of Lady Sybil of Crickhowell giving her right hand as ransom for her husband, is in all likelihood, just that. The tale comes from ‘The Ballad of the Faire Ladye’ which relates over thirty-five verses, how, when asked what ransom he could pay, Grimbauld told the sultan, ‘I have no lands or gold but I have a wife who would give her right hand for me.’

S E Morgan is married to a GP with two adult children and studied, and lives and worked in Cardiff. Now retired, after a career as a consultant psychiatrist, and more latterly senior civil servant, managing Welsh mental health policy. Her hobbies include painting, gardening and most importantly writing, in the knowledge that if you don’t tell your tales, no one else will. S E Morgan has previously published three historical novels set in Wales and an illustrated children’s book. 

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