The following is an except from a fellow author: Guy Donovan. It is the first chapter of his first novel, ‘The Forgotten Princess of Mona.’
Chapter One Spring, 443 A.D.
Hot, late afternoon sunshine beat down on a shallow valley, the tall grass of which waved in a gentle breeze coming off the nearby seashore. The buzzing of unseen insects filled the air as quietly and surely as did the rustling of the grasses while low, dark clouds gathered to the west. Rain would be coming to spoil the idyllic scene within the hour but, for the time being, the valley between the rolling, rocky-topped hills was dry and serene. Countless multitudes of yellow and white chamomile flowers dotted the floor and slopes of the valley, intermingling with the wind-whipped grass.
A young girl with long, coppery-golden hair meandered down into that valley. She was small for her eleven years and was pale-complected, with a light spray of freckles across the bridge of her stubby, rounded nose. Looking out from amidst those freckles were large, hazel eyes that seemed almost glazed over, as if they saw either nothing at all of the world around her or things that no one else could. Those dull, almost blank eyes were the most obvious sign of the simplemindedness from which the poor girl had suffered since her birth.
Her name was Cerys and she was, despite her condition, the one and only princess of the island kingdom of Môna. Môna, in fact, consisted of two islands: Ynys Gybi and Ynys Môn. Ynys Gybi, the island upon which Cerys and the rest of the royal court of Môna resided, was the smaller of the two, separated from Ynys Môn by only a narrow strip of water known as the Afon Crigyll. The Menai Strait, much wider than the Afon Crigyll, separated Ynys Môn from the northwest coast of post-Roman Britannia.
Cerys held a woven, reed basket in one hand and as she moved clumsily through the grass, she plucked at the chamomile flowers all about her and did her best to deposit them into it. Only a few of those flowers actually made it into the basket though, many simply falling to the ground and lying behind her as she continued. Tucked tightly in the armpit of the hand holding the basket was a doll that her father, King Talorcan, had given her when she had been barely a year old. Meant to resemble her dead mother, Queen Delwen, the doll had a shock of horse’s hair that was bleached yellow and wore a linen dress that covered most of the rest except for the head, hands and feet. The doll’s eyes and small, smiling mouth were painted on but the passage of time and countless hours of fondling had nearly faded them away to obscurity. Talorcan’s intent had been that the toy should serve as a reminder of her mother but now it was all that little Cerys had to remind her of him as well since his disappearance over a year before.
While Cerys continued picking flowers, an elderly, bearded man dressed in worn and dirty, grey robes stepped into the valley. After pausing briefly, he made his way down to a rocky outcropping just a few feet above the valley’s floor. There, he seated himself and watched as the young princess meandered about the field of flowers. His gaze was as intent as hers was unfocused.
His name was Domelch and unlike the Romanized Celts of Môna, he was a Pict by birth, having come south from a place called Northumbria by some and by others as Pictland, after the wild people who lived there. The Picts had rejected fiercely not only the centuries-old Roman occupation of Britannia but also the Christian religion that they had fostered upon the tamer, conquered peoples of the south. Followers of the ancient pagan religions of Britannia’s first people, the Picts were the avowed enemies of southern Britannia.
While as pagan as any other, Domelch was no ordinary Pict. He had come to Môna in his mid-teens as a result of a treaty between his people and the High King in Londinium and had remained there out of habit, devotion, and, to a certain unhappy extent, sheer circumstance. He had served that western kingdom first as a priest and practiced healer. Later, he had been the tutor to young Prince Talorcan before later being appointed his advisor when the prince became a king. Many years had since passed. Now, King Talorcan’s whereabouts were unknown and he had since been declared dead, leaving Domelch to pass his dotage as caretaker of and tutor to the poor, simpleminded Princess Cerys who no longer had either a mother or a father.
He watched the little strawberry haired princess with an expression of deep concentration as she gathered her flowers, occasionally managing to get a few into the basket. After a time, he stood up from the rocks and made his way down the hillside. At the bottom, he followed her path through the tall grass, gradually stepping closer and closer to her. As he did so, he began to pick up the stray flowers she had dropped, cradling them in the crook of one elbow.
As he caught up to her, a smile gradually displaced his look of deep thought as he heard her humming a wordless tune. Despite being simpleminded, Cerys had always been predisposed to music. Even now, at eleven years old, her language skills were minimal at best but she often hummed and sang meaningless songs of sweet gibberish.
More often than not, she hummed one tune in particular that her father had often sung to her but had since evolved into something much more her own. Hearing her hum, Domelch reflected on his memory of the many people who had comment to King Talorcan while he had lived that if little Cerys could only speak as well as she could hum, then surely her life would be all the better. He tried not to think too harshly about their unthinking comments, knowing that they had meant well by them. When he finally stepped close behind her, Domelch merely stood there for a few moments, enjoying the sweet sound of her voice before risking startling her.
“Turn around, Cerys,” he said in a gentle tone. “I have a few more flowers for you.”
Cerys gave a little jump, her doll falling unnoticed into the tall grass at her feet. Then, smiling sadly in the only way she seemed to know how, she turned and held up her basket for her tutor to add to her yellow and white treasure.
“L-lots of…ffflers!” she stammered happily, her statement punctuated by a low groan.
Domelch ignored the sound, being used to the semi-tortured nature of Cerys’ speech. If anything, he felt honored to have been treated to hearing her speak at all. She rarely even tried anymore, though whenever she did it was usually only out of necessity and even then almost solely in his presence.
He, alone amongst the people of Môna, suspected that Cerys was aware of how different she was from other children, or anyone else for that matter. Over the years, many had simply grown to accept that she was simpleminded and would never amount to anything that a member of the royal family should. Consequently, most of the people of Môna had long ago seemed to forget she even existed. At times though, Domelch glimpsed a light in her hazel eyes that others either could not or else would not see. Each time, the light fought briefly to overcome the dullness before inevitably fading away.
Many years before, Talorcan had confided in Domelch that he felt his daughter would someday grow out of her problems. He had insisted that she would eventually overcome her limited expectations and take her rightful place in the kingdom. Remembering that and using his healer’s knowledge of herb lore, Domelch had taught Cerys how to recognize and collect the chamomile flowers the year before in order to make a soothing tea from them. Without any real expectation, he had also attempted to teach her to make the tea and one of the greatest surprises of his life was when she managed to brew the drink properly. While he had to admit to himself that pouring hot water over chamomile flowers was hardly proof of deep and meaningful intelligence, her success at it had nonetheless made him think that perhaps the king had been correct about his daughter’s future potential.
At that moment, Domelch again saw that stubborn light in her eyes, struggling against the dullness. Placing the flowers into her basket, he delighted in the glint of happiness he saw reflected there and wished that the person he felt was locked so deep down in those glassy hazel pools could fight her way to the surface and stay that way, as her father had believed she would.
As always though, the light dimmed and Cerys’ brief glimmer of intelligence glazed over again as she turned away. She wandered farther out into the tall grasses, unknowingly leaving her treasured doll behind and humming away while picking carefully from the vast field of flowers as if the ones she was looking for were cleverly hidden from her and not all about her. At times like that, Domelch felt diminished by the thought that they were really only friendly strangers, despite the enormous amount of time they spent together and the love for her that had grown in his heart.
A low roll of thunder finally shook the old man from his thoughts and, looking back at the approaching storm, he stooped to pick up Cerys’ doll. “We need to go now,” he called out to her. “It’s time to get back to the manor.”
Cerys, however, made no effort to answer his call, having stopped near a small, rocky fissure that opened into the earth like a wound. It was dark, moist, and inviting in a way that a cave can only be to the very curious and brave or the very young and trusting. She stood there as if in a trance, her basket dangling precariously in her loose grip. She still hummed the tune her father had taught her and her eyes had once again lost their dullness as she gazed deeply into the dark of the cave. Slowly, she bent at her waist, as if considering crawling inside it.
“Cerys!” Domelch barked, shaking her from her daze in much the same way the thunder had shaken him from his. “Come back to me now,” he said in a softer tone when he saw her look over to him. “She’ll be raining soon. Let us get back to Caergybi before it does.”
As Cerys gazed over to him, her eyes again assuming their typical quality of dullness, she made her way back through the now cloud-shadowed field to where her tutor held her cherished doll out to her. When she reached him, he handed the patched and faded doll to her with one boney hand and put out the other to accept hers, which was soft and pink.
Then they began the trek back over the hilltop to their home in the low, rough stone manor of Caergybi that sat on the edge of a narrow, shallow bay not far from the town of Caergybi. Both were so old that none then alive knew which had taken its name from the other. As they crested the hill and continued to the southeast, neither of them noticed a sound of loose dirt and pebbles crumbling and rattling down just inside the mouth of the cave into which the little princess had only just been staring so raptly.
Later that afternoon, in a distant, almost deserted wing of the manor, Cerys sat by her room’s lone window, watching as the rain poured down in a deluge. With Domelch’s help, she had already tied the chamomile flowers into bundles and hung them from the rafters to dry. Now with nothing else to do, she fussed with a woolen cap he had given her the year before to protect her head from the direct sun. While it was decorated with brightly colored yarn in an intricate pattern befitting her noble heritage, Cerys had never very much liked the plainness that only her eyes saw in it and, as a result, rarely wore it unless Domelch insisted.
Hanging the chamomile flowers from the rafters had given her an idea though and she hummed her usual tune while her fumbling fingers slowly and awkwardly poked the slender stems of the freshest flowers into the loose weave of the wool hat. Frustrated by the difficulty of doing something so simple and, for anyone else, easy to accomplish, she set aside the work and assumed a rocking motion on her three-legged stool as a headache slowly built deep inside her skull. All her life she had been prone to headaches and they had been growing more and more common since her father’s disappearance. The mounting pain brought a low groaning noise from her throat.
Most of the time, her headaches either went away on their own within an hour or two or when Domelch gave her a sort of drink made of mead and powdered tree bark. There were other times though when her headaches were only the precursor to a greater misery that Cerys had come to regard as worse than the pain that so often made her whimper and cry out. At those times, no matter what Domelch gave her, the pain built until it seized her in a sort of madness that dragged her against her will into a deep, dark place of torment. Over time, she had found that the only way she could forestall the gathering gloom of the madness was to distract herself from it by biting down hard on the ball of her left thumb, the sharp pain of which typically shocked her out of the near catatonia brought on by the headache.
A part of her knew that Domelch mistook her biting ritual as the source of the tears that always followed. No matter how much she wanted to though, there was just no way for her to tell him or anyone else that it was actually her intense fear of the darkness in her mind that brought on the tears more than any pain she felt, whether in her hand or her head. To her, the pain of biting herself that way was preferable to the alternative of giving in to the sort of tormented paralysis she feared most. Over the years, a tremendous callous had formed on her left hand from countless episodes of her peculiar method of dealing with her affliction.
The headache she felt then seemed to be of the more benign variety, though she knew it could worsen at any moment, opening up inside her head like a black flower bulb. During a more lucid period as the pain ebbed, Cerys put the cap down, less than half-decorated with the delicate chamomile flowers, and idly fingered her grimy, faded doll as she stared out into the grey curtains of rain that nearly obscured everything else. A quiet, scared voice seemed to bubble up from within the confines of her head, wondering if anyone could or would ever realize that the sort of heavy rain that was coming down then was very much like the way she saw the world nearly all the time. That thought brought on another headache, prompting her to bite down fiercely onto her palm again, fearful of another descent into paralyzed nothingness.
The next time her thoughts returned to the murky state she had come to accept as normal, she found herself thinking of the cave she had noticed for the first time earlier that day. Once again, she began crying quietly, though there was no pain that time…at least not of the physical kind. The cave had reminded her of something her thoughts often avoided, a subject far more detestable to her than any headache or paralysis.
Along with her increasingly frequent headaches, whenever the light returned to her eyes and her cloudy, muddled thinking cleared enough to allow it, her thoughts inevitably went to her beloved father, whose disappearance had left her with only her doll and Domelch. As far back as she could remember she had loved her father unquestioningly, almost desperately. At that moment in her room, the light flaring up in her eyes, she resisted her tendency to think of him. Her few remaining memories of him only reminded her of the fact that he was what other people referred to as ‘dead,’ as was her mother, who she had never known. While the exact meaning of that word eluded her, as did so many others, she understood one thing about it: no matter how much she wanted to, she would never be with her father or mother ever again.
During such times of near normalcy, she knew she had not only been left almost completely alone in the world but was locked in a body and a mind that did not and would never work like it was supposed to. Lately, she had even begun to form a dim understanding that being ‘dead’ herself would bring her no comfort. It would not deliver her to her father and mother. Instead, it would only deprive her of Domelch, the one person she had left to her. It was that cold, harsh truth she sensed which always brought about in her a strong wish to retreat back into the comforting folds of the grey mist that so enwrapped her…that the light that sometimes flared up in her eyes would mercifully die out forever and leave her to what little she had left.
Sometime later, Cerys’ head snapped upright and she realized dimly that she had fallen asleep on her stool, her chin on the windowsill the only thing that had kept her from falling to the floor. Her neck was stiff and she saw that while the rain had stopped, it had grown colder and dark outside and the half-decorated cap still lay in her lap, her pale little hands curled limply on top of it. The remaining chamomile flowers and her doll had fallen while she slept, all strewn amongst the straw scattered on the rough stone floor of her room. Her head hurt terribly and she visualized again the dark bud in the center of her head beginning to open.
Just then, a quiet creaking of wood sounded to her right and she turned to see a dark haired girl not much older than she was herself approaching with a nightgown in her hands. It was white and as elegantly embroidered as her forgotten cap.
“Good evening, Your Highness,” the girl said with a tremble in her voice. Cerys noticed a smear of dirt on her nose. “Mistress Báine sent me to bring you a clean nightdress.”
The look on the older girl’s face showed how much she would have rather been anywhere else in the manor than there, attending to anyone else but the troubled young princess. Nearly everyone looked at her that way and even in her simplemindedness Cerys had long since gotten used to the look.
She simply shook her head and mumbled something unintelligible even to herself. Then she bent down to retrieve her doll before standing up from her stool and stumbling awkwardly toward her bed, her free hand pressed against the side of head against the almost blinding pain. Simultaneously, she bit down on the calloused ball of her other hand’s thumb without releasing the doll. After the dark haired girl helped her into her nightshirt, Cerys collapsed onto her bed, willing the bud behind her eyes to close even as its petals continued to unfold.
“W-w-w-…” she stammered in a pained voice. “W-w-winnn…”
The girl with the curly, dark hair went around the narrow bed and closed the wooden shutter over the window. Then she scuttled out of the room as if being chased from it by the whines and whimpers coming from beneath Cerys’ covers.
As the heavy wooden door closed with a thud in its frame, the flower in Cerys’ head finally submitted to her efforts. It closed back up as a wave of dull, almost blessed confusion came over her again, muddling her previous clarity and deadening her persistent feeling of loss. The last thing she saw before sleep consumed her again was the sight of her precious doll held up close to her face in her hand. In it, despite its intentional resemblance to her mother, she saw her father smiling warmly down at her from wherever it was he had gone.