By Lena Worwood
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 52nd contest was The Irish
Anno Domini. 988
Anya had never met a British person before up close, and now she was in the same room as Born-In-The-Emerald-Palace Princess Kiara Carausia Varangia Britannica, Daughter of the Most Holy and Serene Emperor Arold II of Britannia, and soon to be Bride of Crown Prince Morcant of the Kingdom of the Silurians. The woman was… resplendent, like something out of the gaudiest of church dioramas. She should be surrounded by the wheels and wings of angels - snakes should be curling coils around her in a perfect frame. Fundamentally, she should not be real, and there she was. One of the few true inheritors of the Roman Empire, sat patiently waiting for a drink in a small private room in the hut of the erstwhile chief of a fishing village on the far western shores of Siluria. Her ship had been the victim of storms, and they were stuck for the night, waiting for horses and guards from the capital.
And that’s where Anya came in. She held a small flask of beer in her shaking hands and she wondered how she could possibly be worthy to serve a woman like this. A shameful memory came to Anya’s mind. As a child, older women in the village often called her features “equite” and she’d been so proud to look like part of the nobility. Then, one day, a retinue of the King's equites had stopped in the village and extracted hospitality from the villagers overnight. Suddenly, Anya had realised what people meant - they weren’t noble knights like she’d heard of in stories - the equites of Siluria were foreign mercenaries - Hunns. They were loud and frightening and more like an occupying force than the heroes of legends. Anya thought of her own dark hair and eyes and had been ashamed to think that the villagers had ever meant something good. What she’d thought was a compliment was an accusation on her mother, and she’d smiled and been happy to hear it because she was too stupid to know any better.
Now she was faced with real nobility. A woman so pale that she shone and her mass of red hair framed her head like a cloud. She was like a figure from myth, from that time long ago when Britain had controlled the eastern islands and even parts of the continent as well as Hibernia. A mythic time before the Hunns and Norsemen and Vandals and all the other enemies that stalked the folk memory, if not the actual hills of the mundane, peasant kingdom of Siluria.
Her hands shaking, she passed over the flask. Or tried to. The Princess stared at her blankly and Anya remembered herself and poured the drink. The Princess said something, and Anya stared blankly. The princess repeated herself, more loudly. Then stopped, paused, and said.
“I think your people say… um “cheers for that”
“Oh. Um. ‘s alright.”
Anya tried again. “Um, cheers for saying cheers for that.”
“Oh.” The princess said. She considered this. “Is there a soul in thine nation who can speak Gaelic in all its purity?”
Anya looked down. “I’m sorry, miss. We ain’t educated here miss. I’m sure in Caerfyrddin-”
The princess laughed.
“I’m sorry. Um. Did I say something wrong miss?”
“No, no.” The princess said. “The capital of this kingdom is properly named Moridunum. But I am yet to meet a soul from Siluria who knows this. And I must ask myself, am I to be the only person on this whole sorry island who knows the proper names of things?”
Anya thought about this. “There are monks, I’m told, coming from Hibernia. The Brothers of, um, Saint Morrigan and Saint Dagda - could you speak to them.”
“You know of them?” Princess Kiara asked. “What do people think of our affairs, out here?”
“I’m sure I couldn’t tell you anything you don’t already know miss.” Anya said, and wondered what you were meant to do to get out of the presence of royalty when things got dangerous. “My, um, my uncle will be wanting me. I-”
“What’s your name?” Kiara asked, suddenly. And Anya wondered why she was asking.
“Um. Miss Princess miss. I… I’m just a serving girl here, I promise I meant no harm! I-”
“I level no accusation, child.” The princess said, “I lack entertainment, my few tutors are engaged with the business of our journey and my retinue are… it wouldst be unseemly in the extreme for me to converse with men, on this first night in your country, I…”
“Anya” Anya said. “Just Anya. I…” Anya looked down, in a village where most people described affixed their name with their fathers’ or with some commonly used nickname, there was no additional name that she was willing to say. “Just Anya.”
Kiara nodded, solemnly. “I know nothing of this land, yet I am to rule over it and serve your high king. I -” Kiara stopped. “Tell me, what do they say of my marriage with your Prince?”
“Oh. Well.” Anya tried to think of what to say. She wasn’t entirely sure what any of that meant. How were you supposed to comment on that? “They say there’ll be more priests and monks and stuff coming west. Maybe they’ll stop here? Your churches have all that gold and jewels and stuff, I think. I’d like to see some of that. And your priests can get married? I think?”
“Thou art unmarried?” Kiara asked.
“No… I’m… I’m not ready to yet.” Anya replied. But felt embarrassed.
“And you would seek out handfasting with a man of God?”
“Sorry, miss! I didn’t mean to say I was good enough-”
Kiara cut her off, and shook her head. “No, no. I’m sure you would make a fine prize for many a ordained man. I know the priests of your rite do not abide the sacrament of marriage.”
“I… um. I don’t understand what that means miss but the boys of this village aren’t much so...” She laughed. “A few newcomers wouldn’t be a bad thing, you know?”
“Will this village willingly accept the true gospels?” Kiara asked
“I don’t know, miss, what’s that?”
Kiara thought, “The word of Christ? The sacraments of the church and the true formulas of divinity.”
Anya looked blankly. “We’re all Christians, if that’s what you mean.”
“But thy holy men hold to the Latin rite, will thee follow thine King who through my betrothal to his son hath pledged a bond of fealty with Hibernia and returned to the Orthodox Church?”
“Okay… if… do you… I mean… yes?” Anya stammered, trying to understand what in the Hell the Princess had meant. “We have a priest in the next village but it’s a long walk and he has a lot of people to cover. So, I guess if we had a church here, that would be really helpful?”
It seemed like Kiara was mentally changing gears. “If the Warrior Monks of Saint Morrigan settle near here and protect you from the Hunns, will thee keep an open heart to their rites even if they differ from those of your Latin priest?”
Anya felt entirely out of her depth. “All priests work for Jesus, right? So it’s all the same isn’t it?”
Kiara laughed. And Anya lurched back, like she’d been slapped. “Sorry, miss, I’m very stupid. I-”
“No.” Kiara replied. “I beg your pardon for my outburst. I’m sure you understand the faith as far as a maiden of your station has need of knowledge.” She paused. Thought. “What of Prince Morcant? Is it possible that the whisperings of the court on his royal personage reach even here?”
Anya paused, tried to translate, and said. “They say he’s handsome, and strong, and he killed a lot of Hunns in the campaigns in Ceredigion - um - the middle bit between us and Gwynedd? Do you know where I mean?”
“Is it true?” Anya asked.
“Is what true?” Kiara asked.
“Is he handsome? And brave?”
“We have not yet encountered one another.” Kiara said, and looked down.
“I thought they said you were getting married to him in a few days?” Anya exclaimed, faintly shocked.
“You wouldn’t understand, you are but a child and when a woman of marriageable age and breeding…” Kiara stopped. “What age are you?”
“I’m sixteen.” Anya said, and she watched Kiara deflate.
There was an awkward silence. Anya found a question forming in her throat, and it came out before she could stop herself “How old are-”
“The same.” Kiara said.
And suddenly, the angels and the snakes and the splendor of mythic royalty seemed to clear for a while. And Anya saw a girl, facing an uncertain future in a country far, far away from home.
Anya didn’t know what to say, she knew she could technically marry but she felt too young. Far too young. And this girl... it didn’t seem fair. “What have they told you about him?”
“My tutors speak often of his many fine qualities” Kiara said. “They are learned men, and true, but, they are men.”
Anya looked down. “Look, if you tell anyone I say this someone will probably kill me but… they say he’s a bit dim, and his uncle Ronan is a pervert, but he really is handsome, and strong, and they say he’s kind so… I mean I don’t know. But you can trust I’m telling you honest good things because I’m telling you the bad stuff too. We get traders here. We hear stuff. It might be true. Some of it might be true.”
Kiara smiled. “Thank you.”
And Anya found herself feeling like she was stuck between worlds. In one world, she was briefly and incompetently serving an ethereal queen from the legendary lands to the west where the wisdom and refinement of the ancients was retained. In the other world, she was alone in a room with a worried looking girl who, for the first time in months, had nobody looking over her shoulder or judging her. She took a plunge.
“If I were in your position, I’d be scared right now.” Anya said. “Tell me to fuck off and thats fine but… would you like me to sit with you for a while? You look like you could use some company.”
For a moment, Kiara looked offended, like a haughty noblewoman from a myth about to ask for someone’s head on a platter. Then, she softened into that other, more mundane world. “Thank you.” She said. “Please, can you tell me about this country? Is it nice here?”