One for sorrow
The girl with the jet black hair was young, thirteen? Fourteen? It didn’t matter that much to the troops of the invading English, she was spoils of war. Not a trophy to be taken home, just another Welsh cunt to be used, abused, and re-used until they moved on.
She’d been tending the sheep when the three soldiers, out looking for farms to rob, came across her. She’d been left in a little side-valley with the sheep in the hope the bastardiaid Saesneg wouldn’t find them. But these three did. Still, the villagers thought, at least they left the sheep. She was dragged back half way and then they drew lots for her. They fucked her once, twice, three times and then carried on to the camp where she was passed round. In all this she cried and spoke not a word.
By the end, when the camp moved on to terrorise another part of the Principality she was like an experienced and ravaged whore (though not a whore since they got paid). She had been available for two weeks and all who wanted young cunt had taken advantage. She had sucked cock and vomited, she had been fucked as her menstrual blood flowed, and she had been prised open and fucked up the arse painfully and damagingly. It would take weeks to recover physically and a lifetime wasn’t long enough to recover mentally. One thing also that never recovered was her hair. It turned white overnight, all except for a broad black streak at the back. She reminded people of the magpies that attacked the young lambs (actually it was the afterbirth they were eating, but people were ignorant, and magpies were far too clever to be trusted). When she finally got back, her village rejected her; some cruelly suggested she had enjoyed it, her father just thought she was unmarriageable now – he was also pissed off because he had been planning to take the bitch’s cherry soon himself. It wasn’t that unusual when they all shared the one room. The mother would often welcome the man taking an interest in his teenage daughters as it gave her a rest. Dafydd had had five daughters before having a son by one of them, he was a lucky fucker; as well as being a grandfather and a father to a couple of his children. It was rumoured he had taken his granddaughter/daughters virginity too, but he died when she was 11 and surely even he was that much of a bastard? But the girl’s father was less lucky, she was a mess and no-one but a crude soldier would want to stick his prick anywhere near her; she was probably cursed with the soldier’s disease anyway people said (this at least was one curse they hadn’t actually visited upon her). The village was no real loss, but it was all she had, she found a cave in the hillside and crouched in it, and tried to find ways of losing her curse; because she was pregnant.
She tried bathing naked in the mountain pool, sitting until she couldn’t feel her body, blue with cold. Her belly continued to grow. Her body diverted all the food it could to the growing child within, a natural process of trying to preserve life. She begged for food from passing travellers.
She hit herself in her stomach, jumped from high rocks, took poisonous plants to vomit for two days. Still the belly grew. Life fights hard to survive.
She drew the line at the suggestion from Old Mother Jones, the girl had gone to her late one night, pleading to be helped to rid herself of the life within that was kicking now. The woman knew that any abortion would be awful at such a late stage; the child would be born moving, living but unable to survive. She felt the stomach and looked at the girl, saying nothing. Then she produced the stick; offering to poke it up until the baby fell out. The girl blanched and shook her head. She would take any potion, but nothing, NOTHING, would ever go into her cunt again. And so the girl went back to her cave still heavily pregnant, from that moment on she accepted her fate and began to love the life within. Perhaps this was in time, the growth settled, kicked less, felt accepted now, and was more contented. And two months later she gave birth to the twins that the old woman had felt in her womb. At the end the woman had toiled up to the cave to help the birth, but was hardly needed, the girl coped, she had grown harder, stronger in her isolation. She bore the pain resolutely and loved the babies immediately. She never lost the deep sorry etched on her face but now it was smoothed a little by a mother’s joy.
Two for joy
The village do-gooders, interferers and religious purity specialists decided that the best thing would be to march up to the cave straight away and dispatch the cursed infants that brought shame to their community. The old priest led the way. They were met by a girl holding her stomach and standing painfully at the entrance holding a stick. Mother Jones had warned her and she stood guard. No-one, would take her children. She was the ferocious she-cat at bay and would die protecting her young. The rational, moral majority retreated in disorder.
From that moment on the outcast began to be drawn back in. Food would be left anonymously at the entrance to her cave; even little clothes for the two babies. Mothers saw the mother love in the girl and empathised. The two were twins, but not identical; a boy – Tristram – and a girl – Tristesse. Yet their names belied their nature, for they were both naturally happy children. The insults from the other children seemed to cause them little pain, the cold water to wash in made them strong, not sick.
Children could be cruel, but also had no hidden agendas; they would throw insults one minute and happily play the next. The two children of the woman with the magpie hair were pulled into the games and their uncomplaining, happy natures endeared them to the children of the village. From there the adults began to find their polite, friendliness impossible to resent.
One day she woke to hammering outside, three young men were building and extension to her cave. The two children were ‘helping’ and these three young men, not the natural constituency for young children, were won over by the cheerful, happy, smiles. Even when the hit their fingers and cried (because they weren’t unnaturally emotionless), they would soon cheer up with a kiss and a cuddle. The girl, the mother, found her icy heart beginning to melt a little more. These boys were not the soldiers, they weren’t evil. In time she realised even the bastards who had used her so cruelly were simply following a destiny that had been mapped out for them; she never quite got as far as forgiving them, but she found the pain lessened as the bitterness melted.
The leant-to made the cave more weatherproof, they did not have to retreat into the dark when it rained hard; and it rained hard often in Wales.
The great and the good in the village – the priest, the merchant, the medicine man, the farmers – still opposed the girl. She was a symbol of their own failure; Wales had failed to stop the invasion, every effort to stand up to their bigger neighbour had been a failure. Only the lower classes with their cowardly hit and run tactics had had any real success, but that had just resulted in community punishments; which meant the poor attacked and the rich got punished. These people who had more to lose started to cooperate to stop the attacks. They did not want this girl and her brood, a reminder of their failure; but the others started to accept her again; she did not impose herself but the two children couldn’t help it, they just naturally became part of the weft and weave of the little society. They inherited versions of their mother’s two-tone hair, the girl was born with jet black hair with a white streak, the boy had unnaturally white hair for a child, with that black flash at the back. When they were small, dressed in whatever was available, that was the way to tell them apart; but as they grew they developed differently, and their looks followed their characters in facets of the same, but clearly different.
Even when someone suggested she could move into the hovel beside the smithy, she refused, she was not ready to return to the village that had rejected her. By this time some of the poor were giving her bits of work. The ‘elite’ never came round, but the woman who barely had enough sewing work to keep herself few nevertheless passed some pieces to the girl to do. The family with three sheep asked her to spin the fleeces (and she did it well); other work was passed on. She grew food in the soil around the cave. People saw she was willing to help herself and that made them willing to help her more.
Three for a girl
The old priest had died, people hardly noticed the difference, his cold, hard, inflexible body seemed not that different to the way he was in life. The new priest came and brightened the mood of the village with some love and forgiveness of sins.
Tristesse vanished one day when she was five; her mother went frantic, and the village finally all came together to look for the girl who had won many-a-heart. Eventually they found her high up the hill, cuddling a newborn lamb whose mother had died. She explained that she couldn’t carry it, and she knew it would die of cold on its own so she sat with it and cuddled it knowing that people would come looking for her.
The lamb became a sheep and always remembered the girl. Whenever she came close to that flock, one sheep would separate from the others and wander over to say hello.
In peaceful times shepherding was men’s work, but Tristesse never seemed to understand this. From the time she could walk she would head for the high moors, she would walk with the shepherds until she dropped, and then they would carry her; returning her with a smile to her mother. They tried not to admit it, but they all liked the interest this little one took in their work. As she grew older she would help them with the sheep; she learnt the whistles and the dog working. The sheep were used to her.
She had an affinity with animals; she could approach the magpies closer than anyone (and it was she who realised they were eating the afterbirth, not the lambs – it took more years for this truth to be accepted); she knew where the foxes lived and how the stoat caught its rabbit.
When Farmer Black did not return with his sheep that wild night, the village went looking. The weather was wild and loud and any shouts were lost in the wind. But Tristesse whistled Farmer Black’s whistle, a dog streaked out of the darkness, wagged its tail and streaked away. Calling it back she followed, the dog led her to Farmer Black, leg wedged in the rocks; his other dog was waiting loyally with him. He had been calling until he was hoarse, but a whistle carried farther and a dog has better hearing. The villagers carried him down and Tristesse went to the shearers, preparing to leave the next day for the next village. A mixture of pleading, cajoling, smiles and insistence (never tears, once she reached 13, no-one ever saw her cry) persuaded them to stay one more day.
The next day one shearer had left first thing, “I’m not being played around by some flippety-jibbet” he said, but even he wasn’t up early enough to see Tristesse leave with the two dogs.
By lunchtime the village looked out to see a young 12 year old girl whistling and shouting ‘come bye’ for all the world like an experienced shepherd as she brought down Farmer Black’s sheep. He looked out of the window from his bed, his leg bound tightly to sticks holding it in place to mend, and a tear rolled down his cheek. His sleepless night of worry whether they would be ruined was laid to rest. He and the village honoured her from then on. The shearers did their work and went on their way with the story of the girl who could whistle any dog. Once, for a joke, she whistled all the farmers dogs, all eight in the village, and herded the boys into the pinfold. The village thought that hilarious, even the boys saw the funny side.
So the village grew proud of their girl shepherd. Her mother never returned to the village, but the cave received more extensions and outbuildings.
Four for a boy
If Tristesse was calm, Tristram was wild. He earned the respect of the boys by never backing off from a fight; even with William Smith, son of Bill Smith the blacksmith. William was built big, big feet gave him stability, big body gave him solidity and big hands gave him a jaw numbing punch. Tristram fought, and lost, when he was rude about their mother. After that they were best of friends, and the twin’s mother was never the subject of insults, even if the two of them still were. Tristram would climb the cliffs, run the hills, even fight a wolf barehanded – the wolf was hungry and desperate, the boy was desperate and proud. The wolf won that fight and carried off the early lamb, it wouldn’t have survived anyway; but the villagers looked at the bites and scratches and wondered at this boy who would never back down.
It was natural that when the call of war came Tristram would march off with the others looking for adventure. Perhaps he was the only one to make a solemn vow to his mother not to take any girl against her will, perhaps not. He was probably the only one to keep to such a vow.
His wild willingness to fight marked him out and his white hair and black streak marked him out even more. He fought more like a Viking berserker than a Celtic shepherd. He was brave and resourceful and became a natural leader of some soldiers. He never became an officer, he did make sergeant. And he did the job of an officer on more than one occasion when the officer was some high-falluting idiot who had persuaded ‘daddy’ to buy him a commission. But eventually the blood and death got to him, he saw the dead children, the young men hacked to pieces. His wounds he hardly counted, but even they did give him some pause for thought. Was it worth fighting for some lord to gain greater glory?
He returned, bloodied, scarred and with a girl in tow, pregnant by him, and both as in love as they could be. He had found her hidden by her family in the hay loft; he could have taken her in the hay and no-one, not her and not her family, would have been surprised. They were actually more surprised when he did not, and went further by protecting her. Perhaps that was when she started to love him.
Their garrison stayed nearby for some days and when it left, she came with him. On that last night she had offered herself instead of being an unwilling sacrifice. He wasn’t some celibate priest and took her tight wee cunt with delight and pleasure. Though it hurt, and she bled, she opted to follow him and then he started to learn how not to hurt her in sex. It was clear to all concerned that she was his alone. Perhaps if she’d been a stunning beauty he would have lost her to an officer, or a gang of sex-hungry soldiers; but she was just ‘okay’ to look at, love doesn’t always require stunning looks, amazing brains or money. Sometimes it just needs to be the right jigsaw piece to fit. He would have killed anyone who tried to take her, and she was no whorish camp follower. It wasn’t long before she was pregnant.
So he returned with his heavily pregnant soon-to-be wife, a few coins in his pocket and a calmer, stronger personality. He had seen the pain of war and now he worked quietly to absolve himself of all he had done. He took the rough land beside his mother’s hovel and built his wife a house of stone and wood, then he started on the rough land in earnest, clearing and draining the bog, taking out the stones. He worked from dawn until dusk and only stopped to hold his wife’s hand as she gave birth. Old Ma Smethwick (who had replaced Mother Jones when she died as the person women went to with ‘women’s problems’ – rather than the medicine man who in any case would always prescribe leeches for every ailment) helped with the birth and was shocked (and impressed) that he stayed for the whole painful, messy business. She wasn’t sure she approved of this, some things should surely be not men’s business, but then he had caused the pregnancy, maybe men should see the pain that results?
The child, a boy, was born with the same white hair and streak of black. The magpies continued. Ma Smethwick just commented, quietly, “four for a boy”.
Five for silver
Life was hard for a few years, Tristesse helped the shepherds, treated the cows when they went lame, held horses calmly still when the blacksmith shoed them, and once treated the English overlord’s dog when it went sick. She told him it had an obstruction in its bowel; he looked daggers as his favourite dog (more valuable to him than the peasant treating it) was cut open. She carefully cut a small slit, removed an arrow head; then he smiled broadly as she sewed the dog up. Probably in the venison the dog had been given to eat, an old wound in the old deer brought down by the hunters. The villagers never got venison, at least, not legally. She refused payment – she treated the animal, but would not take money from an Englishman, she said it in Welsh, she didn’t really want to cause trouble, but she had standards. The overlord’s wife smiled, took the money and replied “Yna mynd ag ef oddi wrthyf.” Tristesse, caught out, smiled back and took the money.
So her reputation grew, people came for advice with or without the animals but if they could describe the problem she could often help even from a distance. She never charged, people left food if they were poor, or money if they could afford it. She stopped refusing English money; after all their animals needed help too and she wasn’t asking them for payment.
She diagnosed the dropsy-plant, a poisonous weed that killed horses and cattle, for one ailment and some thought she had lost her mind; but the treatment scoured the animals of the illness they had and they recovered and grew strong again. She could read an animal, feathered, furred or even scaled it seemed. She asked the adders to not bite the sheep. Did they listen? Who knows? But the number of sheep-adder bites lessened and her reputation grew.
She always knew she would die young, it would take only one bull that was mad instead of sad or a dog who was crazed with pain. What actually killed her was a member of her adopted family. A sheep had slid down the cliff to a ledge and there, to make matters worse, given birth. Crows gathered for the afterbirth, men tried to climb down but the sheep was protective and the ledge was narrow. Tristesse said she would try.
“There now, I won’t hurt you, you know that.” The sheep calmed in her presence and a rope was tied to haul it up. She would bring the lamb up in her arms. As she picked it up, a chough, nesting on the cliffs, grew alarmed at the shock of black and white. Black and white signalled magpie egg stealers and it attacked to protect its nest. Why did it wait until then? Only Tristesse might have understood, but being swooped at by the bird as she was already unsteady with the lamb in her arms on the narrow ledge was too much. She tried to put the lamb down as she overbalanced. That probably overbalanced her more; so her last act was to kill a lamb as she flew like a magpie into the air and plummetted still holding it. The waves hid the noise of the thump on the ground. She hadn’t screamed or shouted, just fell.
The Animal Doctor died aged 30, but not before she bore a child. She wouldn’t say who the father was, wouldn’t tell even her mother, the girl was quiet even as a baby. “Like her mother” people said, but she was preternaturally quiet. She would sit and look at a leaf or an ant’s nest for an hour. She would be the new Old Woman of the village, Ma Swithwick predicted. Her hair was like her mother’s. When she was old enough she learnt the family history, she never learnt her mother’s skills, she was destined for another future.
Six for gold
The smallholding was successful. This was new land, never ploughed. It was rich and fertile and as he cleared the ground his harvests grew. Some became jealous of his success, they asked what gave him the right to take the land in the first place. He pointed out that it was rough and wild land that no-one claimed before he arrived, that it was outside the village, and when that didn’t convince them all that the village had thrown them out so they had no actual jurisdiction over him. He stayed calm but held a large stick easily; if the words didn’t convince, the stick did.
When the church needed to expand to cope with the increasing population (an unexpected result of the English, they brought better farming practices which meant more food which meant more children survived ... oh yes, and more free time to make more children) he gave time and money. He gave time as the peasants all did, to dig the foundations, build the walls, lay the stone flag floor and extend the roof. But he also gave money like the gentry, signalling that he was both one of the people and also was now rich enough to have spare cash. The cave still existed, but now it was a cellar for wine and cheese, and dried meats and fish. In front and to the sides the two houses had been joined and extended.
When the old woman died she had a good wake. There was money to spare now and the family were on the up. One way to demonstrate this; show the village, finally, that they shouldn’t have cast the girl out with her children. Yet, in the quiet, still hours of the night, Tristram sometimes admitted to himself that without the rape, without the pregnancy, without the shame and exile, they might just be another peasant family scrabbling round for enough food to last the Winter.
The well-to-do merchants and farmers now accepted Tristram as one of their own, they would jokingly berate him for being soft with his workers, for feeding the man who fell under the plough (and it was true the man had been drunk and it was his own fault), and for not taking a switch to the traveller children who stole his corn sometimes. But they couldn’t help notice that his methods achieved good harvests. It wasn’t just the land that was good, and rich and fertile; the workers were happy and worked hard to keep their places with him. Not being philosophers, they didn’t realise what Tristram did; his workers worked hard because they were treated well and because the other employers were bad. They could see the alternative and they didn’t want it. Anyone with a job on Tristram’s farm made sure he or she kept it.
He amassed a small fortune and improved more land, when the drought came he had a small underground reservoir in another cave; and if they had to carry the water out from it, well at least they had water for their animals. The crops mostly went bad that year, the drought started it and the late heavy rains finished it; but his crops were higher and the land didn’t flood, and his animals lived, so yet again he came out less worse off than many. People said he was blessed, others said he was bewitched by his witchity sister, others said he was just plain lucky, a few – the honest ones – said he was good at what he did.
He became a village elder and helped the village improve itself; he didn’t bear a grudge. When Matt the Bean (as opposed to Matt the Baker or Matt the Brewer) wanted to throw it all up and join the army for adventure he took the boy up the hill and talked, privately, about what he had seen and done in war; things that would make a sane man retch. Matt was sworn to secrecy, but he didn’t leave. The ‘bringing of the stream’ was Tristram’s idea; the village well went fetid in the summer, the mountain stream was culverted and redirected and brought right into the village. It rarely ran out.
Some, like the English overlord grew jealous, but even here Tristram was lucky. Sir Jedold was implicated in a silly plot to unseat the king. The major players were too powerful to be destroyed, but Sir Jedold’s head went on a spike and his castle was burnt down, their new overlord was a hundred miles away and couldn’t care less about a pissy little village and valley in the arse-end of the backside of no-where – that’s what he said. They started to run their own affairs, organise their own Spring and Autumn fairs (previously allowed in the castle, though it was only a ruin now, it made a good open space for the fair)
Seven for a secret never to be told
“Does no-one know who my father was?” asked Pieta, her mother named her that. It wasn’t a family name and no-one knew its meaning, except the priest. Where had Tristesse got the name from, he asked. This was a village in Wales, who could have taught her Latin? Perhaps the father? But there was no-one except the priest who knew Latin, and he knew he hadn’t father the child. He was a poor priest but he kept his celibacy vows.
“Only your mother knew, and she kept her silence to the end” replied Mary, Tristram’s wife. She often found the family odd, her own had been clear and normal; here much was not said and it took her a while to understand the secrets or understand that there were secrets. She knew that he knew more than he told, but he kept his peace too, like his sister. She brought up the child as her own, when her sister-in-law died. It was good to be blessed with a girl child too because they had no more. They tried often, and even tried herbs from Ma Smithwick, but nothing grew in her belly no matter how often he invaded her. Still she liked that he still wanted her, and she liked feeling him atop her, grunting and thrusting and sweating and finally sighing with completion. She liked the feel of him inside. Sometimes, just sometimes, it all came right and she found the pleasure came to her too. When it didn’t she would please herself after as he snored beside her (if it was night) or went out to the farm (if it was morning). He knew she did that and didn’t mind. As husbands went he was a good man.