The Key

by Lisa Essler

I sighed before trotting up the worn, mottled stone steps to the town hall. As heir of the Cath Chwyrnu family, I had duties to perform, which included greeting merchants in another ceremonial welcoming. Reaching the warm, sunny terrace I stood watching my busy town with its cobbled streets and tiled roofs.

Movement in the undulating fields beyond the walls caught my attention. A lone figure walked onto the open path from the eldritch forest a mile beyond the town walls. I smiled, hoping that the dark mop of hair belonged to Aidan Gresley. My thoughts drifted to how our families might react to our growing attachment.

Usually, I talked through things with my mother or sisters. However, they were travelling and would not return until Calanes. The freedom to oversee my life was mine for the first time and I felt hesitant about my decisions.

My attention was snagged by a small, vivid horseback procession making its way up the knoll. I smirked at the gaudy display. Even the horses were caparisoned in gold and crimson.

Thank the Gods, the summons reached me in time. Turning I strode past fragrant herbs and flowers, each chosen for their symbolism and magical properties. Opening the tall, arched oak door, I stepped inside the slightly dimmer hall. Uncle Hywel’s hand landed firmly on my shoulders, while he looked down to my feet and slowly up to my face. “Good. You’re presentable. These merchants are important. Treat them and their entourage with courtesy, spend time with them and show our town off. Do not disappoint me in this,” he said, as we walked towards the dais.

“Yes, uncle.”

I nodded to my friend Megan, an acolyte from the temple, and stood next to her behind Hywel Cath Chwyrnu’s chair. Noting the protective spellbinding placement of flowers, I realised that this was an important delegation.

Tap, tap, tap — “Open the doors. Admit the Whiteheath delegation, —” commanded the chubby herald dressed in the emerald robe and gold chain of his office.

The bard began reciting the traditional welcome. My nose wrinkled as the combination of unwashed bodies and musk reached me. Remembering my role, I plastered a smile on my face.

Two men entered the mural painted hall and strutted forward. Their black leather boots clunking on the travertine floor. Carmine cloaks embroidered with golden thread flared around them. Golden curls artfully arranged bounced over their shoulders. They bowed dramatically before the first step.

“Welcome to Dolyyd Melys. Your arrival has been anticipated master’s Sanderson. I trust that you had a good journey?” said Hywel Cath Chwyrnu.

“Yes, a long but fruitful journey, My Lord of The Virver Province,” said Roger Sanderson.

“We anticipate a mutually beneficial visit. Trade discussions are scheduled for tomorrow,” said Hywel as he gestured to me and I stepped forward, to the side of his chair. “I introduce my niece, Lady Ceinwyn Cath Chwyrnu. She will escort you to my Palace. Relax and enjoy yourselves this afternoon. I have arranged a modest repast for tonight.”


           I said goodbye to Megan and descended the recently installed black marble stairs to the floor as the merchants eyeballed me. “Whom do I have the honour of addressing?” I said.

“I am Roger Sanderson, and this is my younger brother, Jerold Sanderson, My Lady,” said the more robust of the two men, before they both bowed to me.

“I am pleased to meet you. I will escort you to my uncle’s home. Please follow me.” I turned and began walking from the hall, inhaling deeply the fragrance from the patio as I neared the open door. Oh yes, that smells better.

            The brothers were seven feet behind her and whispering to each other.

“She’s captivating,” said Roger.

“More than that. Look at the way her hips sway,” said Jerold.

Roger snickered quietly, “Stop thinking with your cock, little brother. Remember we need to win her over. Anyway, she’s way above your level but not mine.”

I walked through the open door and stood waiting for them wondering why they were talking about me in such a manner. They joined me, one on each side, and stood too close for my comfort. I stepped forward on the quartzite paving and said, “This is Dolyyd Melys, the largest town in the Virver, with 2,814 residents. That’s the main square,” and I pointed northwards. Markets are held there once a week. You missed one three days ago, so you will need to wait another four days. That is if you wish to attend our market.”

“It would be interesting to see the wares of this region,” said Roger.

“Other stores, around the square, are open every day and they have many local goods.”

“Yes, we saw some this morning as we left the Tail’s End tavern.”

“Good, so you stayed there last night,”

“It was an enjoyable night,” said Jerold.

I wrinkled my nose in distaste while thinking about the tavern’s reputation. Continuing with the tour, I explained “The main road enters the town from the north and goes past the square.”

“Yes,” said Roger. “My Lady, what are those buildings over by the west gate?”

“That’s the livestock barns and the sale yards.”

“Oh, quite organised,” mumbled Jerold.

I ignored his remark but seethed internally. Of course, humans would think less of my people.


“What is the large building on the hill by the eastern wall?” said Roger.

“That is the temple and infirmary.”

“May I ask,” said Roger, “Who the other young Lady was that stood beside you inside?”

“She is an acolyte from the temple.”

“Why was an acolyte from the temple present at the formalities, My Lady?”

“All guests are welcomed with a representative of the Gods present.”

“Ah, I have heard that the Virver is quite religious.”

“It’s more an awareness of the Gods and what they provide for us.”

“We have faith in the Gods as well, but we are more formal in our approach with regular services.”

I looked at him, “To each their own way,” I said. Then pointed towards the middle of the town. “That’s the school and library and over the river, there to the east is the Lord’s palace. I will escort you there now.”

“Do you live with your uncle?” asked Roger.

I smiled politely, “I live with my family.”

“So, you have other family, My Lady.”

“Of course, they are busy right now. And your family?”

“We have a large family. Our father is a successful merchant, and our mother is the cousin of our Queen,” said Roger.

 Ah. The Royal colours explain the garish attire.

“It’s a lovely view from here,” said Jerold. “This terrace appears new, yet the stairs are old.”

With a wry smile, I said, “I’m sure that will be next on the council’s improvement list to be done. My uncle will see to that.” A small snicker escaped from the brothers.

“Oh, so the council makes decisions not the Lord?” said Roger.

“The Lord is the representative of The Virver and Chancellor of the council. The council makes decisions collectively, including what funds are raised and spent.”

Roger and Jerold looked obliquely at each other.


Roger nodded to Jerold and quickly descended the stairs to talk to the crimson liveried servants, who tended their horses. They led the horses to the side of the stairs. Jerold placed a hand on my shoulder, and I flinched slightly, “May I offer you my arm, My Lady.”

I demurred, “Thank you,” I said. “I am able to descend the stairs unaided.” His face tightened and reddened. Why is he annoyed, I wondered.

Upon reaching the street, Roger’s guards and servants, leading the horses, fell in behind us. The servant and two guards formed a small group, so I asked, “Is this the complete entourage you travelled with?”

“No, My Lady, we left the rest of our group and goods at the inn,” said Roger.

“What do you trade in?’

“Many things, cloth, foods, wood are but a few,” said Roger.

“Sometimes we trade in gems or furs, as well,” said Jerold. Roger shot him a chilling look.

 “Furs belong to their original owners, “I said.

Roger replied, “He means the processed hides of animals that have been slaughtered for eating. You make use of such hides, don’t you?”

“Yes, we do.”

We walked quietly, along the partially shaded cobbled streets. I acknowledged people while thinking, I hope this finishes this soon.

    Roger said “Dolyyd Melys is larger and livelier than I thought it would be. There are many cats around. Are they all werecats?”

“No,” I smirked. “Do you think we catch mice ourselves?”

Annoyance flashed through Rogers’ eyes, which caused me to raise my eyebrows in surprises.

We crossed the southern bridge and were beginning to angle our way uphill towards the palace. I stopped and looked towards the elderly lady on the other side of the street going towards the temple.

“May I ask you to wait for a minute? I need to talk to the High Priestess,” I said and walked swiftly over to the lady.

“Good afternoon, granddaughter,” said the Priestess.

I curtseyed slightly, smiling warmly. “May I talk to you soon about something?’

“Of course, dear. After the solstice festival.”


“Your uncle has you escorting new merchants again.”


“You don’t like them. That’s why you curtseyed.”

“I don’t have good feeling about them.”

“Well, they do have an unfavourable aura and odour.”

“They sure do, Nana. I’ll see you at the festivities in two days.”

“Until then, kitten.”


I led the brothers up the slope and into the terraced gardens that ran alongside the river path. Roger cleared his throat and said, “There are many trees along the streets and these gardens are beautiful. People are even picking flowers.”

“People may collect what they need. For us, flowers provide healing, joy and have a symbolic language of their own,” I said.

Roger raised an eyebrow, “Interesting. Rather different from Whiteheath. Our gardens tend to be private.”

“That’s sad,” I said. Roger looked at me with wide-open eyes briefly then shut down his surprise, replacing it with a mask of urbanity. “Can you explain some of them to me?”

“Sure.” I talked about some of the plants but hurried my steps. The end to this walk was coming into sight.

The brothers dropped back a few feet and I heard them whispering again.

“She’s a bit flippant,” said Jerold.

“There are ways to curb women,” said Roger.

Bounding up the stairs to the street of my uncle’s three-story home, I waited for the brothers and stewed with agitation over their last comments. They caught up and I said, “It’s not far now. You will be able to rest and bathe before tonight’s dinner.”

The brothers looked sideways at me. Jerold broke the tension by saying, “That small manor is a palace?”

“Your leaders reside in a palace and so do ours. They may be different, but they serve the same function,” I said and strode ahead.

Upon reaching the palace, the guard smiled and opened the gates. He directed the servants to the side entrance. We entered the grounds as the doors opened and the steward ushered us inside.

“Thank the Gods, that’s over.” I sighed, as I left the Lord’s mansion and turned towards home to change my clothes.


Crossing the narrow blue stone bridge, I heard quick, booted footsteps behind me and smiled as the faint fresh scent of citrus soap wafted towards me. Aidan Gresley said, “Where are you going?”

“To the fields,” I replied.

“May, I join you?” he said.

“Of course, we need to discuss business.”

His grey eyes glistened, “Yes, secret negotiations to secure all the fleece.”

My heart lightened as he approached, and we quietly slipped our hands together and sauntered along.


“So, what have you been doing today?” said Aidan as we walked towards the western town gate.

“My uncle, our Lord, had me looking after some human merchants for him.”

“Ah, and you don’t like them.”

“They whispered to each other.”

Aidan barked out a laugh and said, “They didn’t know that you heard them.”

“Every word. They politely call me ‘My Lady,’ as if it’s a special term to my face. Then they whisper so crudely about me.”

“Lady is a special term to them. That they talked crudely doesn’t surprise me. There’s been fresh gossip about them after the way they behaved at the tavern last night.”

“Well, the Tail’s end is the place for lewdness. What did they get up to?”

“Drunkenness, groping and propositioning the bar staff. Have you told them that women are highly valued here?”

I flinched as I listened to him.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

I nodded and said, “I explained a few things, but how much they understood, I don’t know. If my uncle just called himself the Chancellor instead of Lord, they might understand more.”

“Yeah, but then Hywel couldn’t puff himself up so much,” said Aidan.

I laughed.


Several bleating piebald goats greeted me as I entered the field with Aidan. They rubbed their bodies against my tunic and stood on my boots. Chortling, I said, “Stop that,” and shut the wooden gate behind us.

Aidan smiled, his dark curls framing his face.

“There should be a higher yield next year,” I said.

“And the fleece will be as fine last season.”

“I’ve given this speech already.”

“I appreciate hearing it again. My family will be happy to mill it,” said Aidan.

I looked around the large, green field with its shady trees for the fieldhand. He was checking the stone and hawthorn fences, so I beckoned him over and smiled broadly, “Evan, you will need to bring them in tonight. I must leave early.”

“I will, mistress,” said Evan. “Some of the fences need replacing.”

“We’ll hire some extra labourers after the solstice.”

“I can send you some help,” said Aidan.

“You don’t have to,” I said.

“I want to and anyway it helps secure our business arrangement.”

Evan laughed and I leaned into Aidan.


“Why, do you have to leave early?” asked Aidan.

“My uncle has organised a reception for those merchants.”

“You have to attend?” said Aidan, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes, it’s expected of the heir. Maybe he will let me be involved in the negotiations this time.”

“Dining with the nutsacks — what a pleasant evening.”

“I’m shocked at your language,” I said.

“You called them that yourself,” said Aidan. Evan laughed and I blushed.

“Could you get me the bucket of carrots?” I said.

I noticed a smile play at Aidan’s lips as he surreptitiously watched me move with feline grace amongst the flock. He sauntered over to the gate and collected the bucket from the other side of the fence. We fed them together.

We walked along the hard dirt path back into town and passed the goat’s wooden barn, with the snarling Lynx motif overhead.

“Did you place the barn’s wards,” Aidan asked.

“No, my grandmother did.”

“The High Priestess laying wards?”

“For me, yes.”

“Family connections,” he laughed. And brushed against my arm as we ambled through the town’s gate onto the cobbled path.

“You have yours, amongst us, humans and the selkie,” I said.

“Yeah, at least, I swim well. My selkie nana made sure of that.”

“It’s unusual for us cat-bloods. WelI, I don’t swim.”

“I’ll have to teach you,” he smiled and stepped forward.

I blushed, “I must go and get ready.

“Until we meet again, My Lady,” and kissed my hand.

“Don’t call me that.”

He laughed and jogged off.


The main entrance to the palace was ablaze with torch and lantern light as I made my way up the stairs with my two long-term guards. The door swung open as I approached, and the steward guided us in. My uncle is really trying to impress for just a simple business dinner. There must be a big trade happening, but he hasn’t mentioned anything to me. The guards went to the kitchen as the steward led me to the dining room and announced my arrival.

The murals depicting the history of the region were softly illuminated by candles when I entered the dining room. I curtseyed slightly to my uncle and inclined my head to his guests.

“Good evening, uncle,” I said.

“Good evening, dearest. You look wonderful in that dress.”


“Good evening, My Lady Ceinwyn,” said Roger, as he stood and extended his hand. I shook it loosely. I sat to the right of Hywel at the long, oak table. Roger was seated to my right. We sat down on the straight backed, ornately carved oak chairs. At least they have bathed, I thought.

“I hope that both of you have settled into your new chambers,” I said.

“They are wonderful rooms with a view over the town,” said Roger.

“The best rooms in the palace.” My uncle is striving to impress. Why?

“My Lady, I am interested in continuing our discussion about how things work here.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Is Lordship an inherited position?”

“Lordship is neither inherited nor for life. Lords can be replaced if necessary.”

“I see. We sometimes replace our Kings.”

Often with bloodshed, I thought.

“Who makes up the council?”

“Each of the families who were present when Dolyyd Melys was founded have a seat on the council. There are four other seats for members of the major industries in our area. These seats are filled by representatives voted into office by the residents.”

“You could end up with idiots or criminals being chosen,” said Roger.

“There are rules about who can stand, like known criminals are barred,” I said.

“So, you have something similar to our aristocracy but rather different as well.”

Servants began pouring wine into goblets. Then Jerold spoke up.

“My Lady,” said Jerold. “I thought I saw you out near the fields with someone. Why would you be there?”

“Why would I not be there?” I answered, “My goat herd is my family’s livelihood. I spend time with them almost daily.”

“Do you need to do this, My Lady,” asked Roger.

“I enjoy my time with the flock. It’s important to know their condition, to run the business properly.”

“Who was with you?” asked Hywel.

“Master Gresley,” I said.

Hywel sipped his wine and scowled, “Why? I thought he had gone home.”

“He wanted to check the fleece before he left,” I answered.

“Who is this Master Gresley?” said Roger.

“Nobody important. He belongs to a miller’s family,” said Hywel.

“His family does have a council seat, uncle,” I said.

“Yes, but he’s not one of the founding families,” said my uncle. I let my agitation stew in my belly and kept my face clear of emotion.


Changing the conversation Roger said, “I have wanted to see the famous Virver for ages. I hear that the Jumbled Waterfall is noted for its beauty.”

“Yes, it is,” I replied.

“Our host suggested that you escort us there tomorrow?”

“I will be busy tomorrow.”

“You are,” frowned Hywel.

“Preparations for mid summer’s eve,” I said.

Servants brought in a covered cloche and began serving the soup.

Grinning, Jerold called for more wine as he tapped his goblet on the table. “Such a boor,” I thought and declined the offer of more wine.

Hywel noticed and gestured for entertainment.

The minstrels began,

Fill with mead, the goblets high,

Nor let a soul this day be dry:

The Hall resounds, the triumph rings,

And every bard, the conflict sings.[i]


I sipped my soup quietly and was drawn in by the ballad. Roger startled me when he leaned close and asked, “What song is this?”

“Interrupting, how rude,” I thought, then whispered, “The Ballad of Owain.”

Jerold rubbed his wrists together, so I turned my attention towards him. He grinned and said, “Have you travelled far, my Lady?”

“I have been throughout the Virver but no further,” I said.

“You learn by travelling.”

“You also learn through reading. This is my home, and I will take my council seat when I am twenty-five. My uncle is only acting for me.” Is noted the disquieted astonishment that crossed their faces.

“You have women involved in governance and business?” said Roger.

“Is it a novel idea amongst your folk?” I said as my lips twitched up.

“Women are involved behind the scenes sometimes, but not upfront.”

“Why is that?”

“Women have too much to do in running their households. As Queens of the house, they must maintain their castles. In doing so they enable men to work and lead outside the home which is the domain that more suits the male nature,” said Roger with full confidence in what he said.

Smiling and moving my shoulders back, I said tersely, “We don’t think the same here in the Virver.”

What do you know of Whiteheath, My Lady?” said Roger.

“It’s a busy coastal trade centre.”

“That’s true. There is more to the city though – music, theatre, and dance, which I often enjoy. Do you like to dance Lady Ceinwyn?”

“Yes, I do.”

Roger smiled, “Maybe we can dance later My Lady?”

“Maybe at the Midsummer festival — if you are still here?”

“That’s good. May I ask a question?” said Jerold.

I looked at him quizzically, “Yes.”

“Is it true that werecat women sing and dance nude under the full moon?” The conversation at the table stopped as all eyes turned towards Jerold.

“A fabrication about my people,” I said, as my eyebrows lowered on my flushing face.

“I did not mean to cause offense, My Lady.”

I waved my hand to clear his wine laden breath and said, “I know.”

He smirked. I squirmed away and jutted my chin out in anger, saying, “It is late. I have an early start tomorrow. I am leaving, uncle. Please, call my guards for me.”

My guard’s boots thudded on the tiled patterned mosaic as they followed me out.


Pacing along the river path I felt my whiskers coming out in agitation. I fought my desire to shift and run off into the moonlit night.

“Such a vile man,” I hissed.

“Yes, he is,” said Old Madoc the guard.

“Did the servants have any worthwhile gossip?”

“Your uncle is concerned that this visit goes well and that you enjoy the company of the merchants. He keeps reminding the steward that you and Iseult promised your father to listen and follow his guidance. That he wants what is best for you,” said Emlyn, the younger guard.

“First, we were children when our father was dying, and we made promises to listen to his brother. Second point, if he wants what is best for me then why is he trying to make me spend time with people he senses I don’t like” I said.

Old Madoc said,” Hywel mentioned to them making an announcement that concerns you on midsummer’s eve, just two days away. The merchant’s seemed happy with that.”

“Something is amiss here. My instinct is to be careful,” I said. “I’ll go to the forest tomorrow to be out of Hywel’s reach for the day. I want both of you to keep my whereabouts to yourself and quietly find out more of my uncle’s plans tomorrow?”

“Absolutely mistress, we will be happy to do that,” said Old Madoc.


At light’s first flush, the dark soothing woods to the west, welcomed me. My innate feline senses opened, and my green-gold eyes shone, as they adjusted to the gloom. The bird’s dawn cacophony filled my ears. I jogged along the path to an elderly oak, a forest guardian, and sprang onto a low branch. I adjusted my knapsack and trotted to the trunk. My nails dug into the bark. Images of Ceridwen’s glen flitted into my mind. A path appeared in my mind.

The shortcut jumping from tree to tree was quick. As sunrise painted the sky, I found myself overlooking the sacred glen. Water burbled down a steep brook. I murmured a prayer to the Goddess Ceridwen and ran down the steep flank of the combe. I undid my ginger braid, displaying the dark red dappled spots in my hair and stripped. Plunging into the cold sacred pool, I extended my hands and let water flow between my fingers, as I centered herself. I called on the Gods to strengthen my body, sharpen my mind and aid me. I rose to the surface and stood.

I wrung my hair out, then shook myself as I climbed out of the pool — I felt alive, my senses more intense. A resolute feeling was stirring in my gut. I quickly dressed, jogged down to the trail and almost knocked Aidan over.

“Gods, I didn’t expect to see you,” I said and pushed my damp hair out of her face.

“Nor I you.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Collecting mite weed for my grandmother.”

“I see more than that.”

“The honeysuckle is for you,” he said and tied the flowered vine around my wrist.

“So, you are devoted in your affection to me?” I whispered.

“Absolutely, It’s a promise to you, something to remember. My family needs me. I’m going back to Stonebank after the Solstice festival overmorrow.”

“Oh, I see.” I felt knocked down a little.

“We have today though.”

“Yes,” I smiled and gently pushed my shoulder into his arm. He laughed and reached for my hand.

I taunted him, “Catch me,” and ran off down the trail.

We ran into drifts of wildflowers and darted between trees. Laughing, I dropped my knapsack, and Aidan caught me around the waist and backed me into an ash tree. I looked up at him, breathing fast, so sure yet so nervous. He bent his head down and kissed me softly. I felt myself respond as the kiss deepened. His hands were in my hair and my arms were around him.

He pulled back and said, “Gods you’re beautiful. I’m glad I ran into you.”


“Grr,” snarled a scruffy, sandy lynx. We froze, then I peeked around Aidan and relaxed, “Cousin Dryw, I didn’t expect to see you today.” The lynx paced forward and nuzzled my outstretched hand and Aidan’s legs, before tugging my hand lightly.

“He wants us to follow him,” I said.


We loped into a grassy clearing with a fire pit and litter covered shelter around mid-morning. Dryw headed into the shelter. I dropped my knapsack and sat on a cut log near the fire pit. Aidan sat next to me and took my hand, saying, “I didn’t know you had a middle-aged cousin?”

“He’s mum’s cousin, my second cousin. You remember I’ve mentioned family that spend most of their time in the forest.”

“It’s good to see you two finally admitting how you feel about each other,” said a shifted, bare footed but trousered Dryw Rhedwr Cyflym.

We squirmed slightly.

Dryw laughed, “You two have been dancing around each other for years.”

“What will Mama say?” I said.

“Your mother will be happy about it.”

“Will she?” said Aidan.

“You’re the only suitor of our finest young woman that she has approved of,” said Dryw.

I blushed, while Aidan preened.

“Cousin, why did you come for me?” I said.

“I scented your passage and heard you. So much noise — anyone could have found you. I need to talk with both of you.”

“What about?”

“Well, Hywel — an ambitious and obdurate man. He will use anyone, including you and Iseult, to obtain what he wants.”

“I am aware of his ambitions. How would he use me, cousin?” I said.

“Let me finish. Your uncle intends to claim greater power and authority than he has as Chancellor.”


“He has misrepresented himself as equivalent to a human king and the council as a traditional, but unnecessary stamp of approval.”

“How do you know this, Dryw?” I said.

We heard shuffling footsteps. “Come out Craig,” said Dryw. A stout figure, clothed in tunic, trousers, boots and a cap appeared between the trees. He strode towards them, swinging his arms as he walked.

“Why is a Coraniaid man here?” said Aidan. “The dwarves put themselves first.”

“I would lead neither of you into danger,” said Dryw. “Listen to Craig. He represents the Coraniaid.”

Craig gave a lopsided smile and walked around the firepit. He sat down on a log on the opposite side and stretched his legs out.

“My favourite forest ranger called me to this meeting because I have knowledge that affects both of you. The Coraniaid hear every word cast upon the wind. Hywel’s grumbling about the backwardness of the Virver and how we could be more civilized are well known to us,” said Craig. “He doesn’t respect our independent folkways that have sustained us from time immemorial. The forest has sheltered us and provided for all. Yet, our chancellor is privately adopting foreign attitudes, particularly those from Whiteheath. Humans arrived from another world hundreds of years ago. The Fae offered them refuge, but many see the world and its inhabitants as resources to be profited from. They promote greed and unbalanced power structures in their society. A great deal of suffering occurs from this.”

“I know my uncle wants us to advance and he sees the humans as being a way to achieve that with trade in goods and knowledge. In the last few years, the Virver region has prospered from this,” I said.

“Yes, this has happened. However, he has greater plans that will impact our community and environment enormously. He also thinks that he will have greater power over the humans — a foolish thought. For Hywel, it’s a way of gaining more power yet he fails to consider the wider implications,” said Dryw.

“Like what,” I said.

“He has plans to gradually remove women from the council and other powerful positions in our society and give it over to men,” said Dryw. “Beginning with removing you and your sister from your inherited positions and allow his son to inherit the family council seat.”

“This would not be accepted,” I said. “He holds the Cath Chwyrnu seat because my father died. The seat is mine in five years. The council will remove him from his role and appoint someone else. He would lose the family seat and my mother would act in my place. He would become a pariah and lose his other positions.”

“He is clever,” said Craig. “He plans to make it all seem like a natural flow of consequences. However, he does overestimate his ability to control the human element. That was abundant last night in the arguments he had with those merchants.”

“What were they saying?”

“It sufficed to say that neither Hywel nor this Roger Sanderson were impressed with the younger brother’s behaviour. Expect attempts to win your affection from them.”


“How would he go about making such changes?” said Aidan.

“Hywel has arranged an alliance with Whiteheath, to harvest most of the forest and hunt its creatures – it will be sealed with your marriage to Roger Sanderson,” said Craig.

“No, it won’t,” I shook my head wildly. “I will not marry him. He can’t force me.”

“He will announce your betrothal tomorrow at the midsummer eve’s ritual,” said Craig as he watched my reactions.

My eyes widened in shock and said, “If I refuse, I will bring down the God’s anger and shame my family. Midsummer’s eve is a holy time.”

“He is counting on that.”

I transformed into my ginger lynx and dashed out of my torn clothes with flattened ears. It felt good digging my claws into an elm tree as I climbed and yowled out my rage.

“Ceinwyn, I won’t let this happen,” said Aidan.

“She’ll come down when she’s ready,” said Dryw.


Around midday, as the sun gave my fur a coppery sheen, I jumped down and walked into the shelter.

“I’ll bring your pack,” said Dryw.

Dressed in fresh clothes, I stalked out of the shelter with my fists clenched. Looking at Craig I said, “Do you have proof?”

“In our records. You know that we sell information to supplement our income.”

“And you expect me to pay?” I hissed.

“Not at all,” said Craig. “This affects all of us.”

“War will come if this happens,” said Aidan.

“We don’t need that,” I said as I sat down next to Aidan. “I will not allow this — there must be a way to stop him. I tasked Old Madoc and Emlyn to find out my uncle’s plans. Maybe they will have something when I come back.”

“Your family guards,” said Craig.

“They are both capable men. They used to be in the town watch,” I said.

Dryw said, “We’ll need to take your records to the council Craig. However, I’ll talk to the High Priestess tonight.”

“She’ll be furious,” I said.

“Oh yeah, my aunt certainly will be, but her help is necessary,” said Dryw.

“Hywel has no right,” said Aidan. “I will marry you today and you can come home with me.”

“You would do that to protect me,” I said. Aidan nodded.

“I have responsibilities, I can’t let my uncle destroy our environment and who we are. Running away won’t solve anything. I also don’t want to be rushed into acting, although I’m not averse to your offer, Aidan.”

“A more sophisticated approach will be needed. Hywel issued an order this morning to detain you, Aidan. He wants you out the way,” said Dryw.

“Mama will be enraged. I need her,” I said.

“So will most of our people. I’ll be there with you,” said Dryw. “This is a fight for your life as you want it girl. Your mother can’t fight it for you.”

I raised my chin to face what I must, nodded and said, “I knew my uncle was cunning but not so cruel. I trusted him.”

“Betrayal is a hard life lesson, however; you can stand up to him. We are canny and together we can devise a plan to stop this,” said Dryw.


“What can I do?” said Aidan.

“Try to devise a plan with Ceinwyn. Use all your abilities — strength, mind and magic because Hywel surely will,” Stay in the forest tonight, Aidan. Tomorrow, I’ll take you to the festival. Hywel won’t be interested in locking you up by then,” said Dryw.

“I’m worried about you,” said Aidan.

“I’ll be careful. My uncle can’t find out I’m onto him,” I said. “Not going to the festival won’t prevent it from happening.”

“Maybe, I can knock out the Sanderson brothers or chase them out of the area,” said Aidan.

“Tempting as it is that won’t break their or Hywel’s desire for this compact. The wealth and power they could gain is all they can see. You Ceinwyn are a means to an end for both sides and a toy to be played with,” said Craig.

“We need a way to make both sides abandon the treaty,” said Dryw.

“This has not been before the council, has it,” I asked.

“Not yet,” said Craig.

“If we can remove my uncle from his position that should stop it all,” I said. “The records you have Craig and anything else that can be added would be enough to remove and imprison him. Who should we go to first.”

“The High Priestess,” said Dryw and Craig.

“Well, we only need to come up with a way to prevent him making any announcement at Midsummer’s eve,’ I said.


They sat and talked about what to do. A plan still seemed a long way off as the gloaming drew near.

“We have to go now,” said Dryw.

I kissed Aidan goodbye and left with Dryw.


Upon reaching home I found gifts waiting for me in the muraled reception room. My shoes clinked on the tesserae tiles as I strode towards the side table containing a basket of displayed golden jewellery and a large bouquet of cabbage roses and lavender Scowling, I read the note from Roger and threw it down.

What a message. “So garish but rather apt — from the ambassador of love and mistrust,” I said.

Dryw smirked.

Old Madoc caught my attention as he entered the room. “Do you have anything for me?” I ask

“We found a couple of letters referring to a trade deal that would be sealed with an irrevocable alliance,” he said.

“You left no trace of your search?”

“No, Emlyn is courting the housekeeper’s daughter and she doesn’t like Hywel.”

I laughed. “You have copies.”

“The originals actually.”

“Give them to me,” I said and looked at them. “These letters show intent that will support the case, but I need copies and to return the originals. Madoc, I need you and Emlyn to keep this a secret. Too much, rides on this situation being settled tomorrow.”

“Of course, mistress. Good night.”

Dryw said, “I’ll visit the High Priestess on my way back and show her these papers. She can copy them quickly. From dawn until mid-morning, I will wait near the forest edge for any messages from you.”

“Thank you, cousin.”



After tossing and turning in my bed, I padded silently downstairs to the parlour and sat on a sofa, beneath my mother’s portrait. Looking up, I whispered, “Mama, what do I do? I don’t want to shame my family, but I will not marry either of those men.”

The key jangled as it fell to the floor from the door handle, startling me. I turned around and giggled, as my cat pushed the door open and trotted up to me purring. I picked her up, remembering the last Imbolc festival when she did the same thing to Aidan. I curled up on the sofa, snuggling with my pet.

While dozing, I felt ghostly fingertips brushing my forehead and heard my mother murmur, “Darling, you are strong and worth more than your uncle knows. Give him a gift from me.” Waking up, I stretched and knew that I had soul-linked with my mother as I dreamt. “I have a plan coming together. Now to get word to Dryw and nana.”

By daybreak, the household was bustling for the midsummer eve’s festival.

I called for Emlyn and told him to take a servant with him and go to the forest edge and collect wild catnip. “Tell anyone who asks that we have a few kittens to keep busy. I want you to tell the Forest Keeper Dryw to arrive for the evening ceremony. Pass this message to him alone and where none can hear you,” I said.

“Very well mistress.”


There was a knock at the dining room door, as I had breakfast and Megan entered. “The High Priestess sent me to assist you in whatever way I can. I do need to leave after luncheon though,” she said.

I jumped up and hugged her, saying, “That’s wonderful. I have plans to put into action.”

“Just tell me what to do”

We went to the kitchen, and I asked the cook, “Bethan, where are all the spare keys?” She looked at me oddly. “Please get them for me.”

“Alright mistress,” and she bustled her chubby body into the pantry and brought out a clay pot containing them.

I took the pot and went upstairs with Megan.


I polished an etched, bronze box while Megan threaded ribbons onto keys. The four lobed key for the box was the last one to be done. I placed the box in a wooden trunk at the foot of her bed. I looked at the beaten copper panel that my father had engraved for me. – The price of your character will always be found in the value of your integrity. — I whispered, “Father, I have never forgotten your words. They have been your greatest gift to me.”

“Megan, could you go to the gardens for me and collect some hawthorn flowers, heather, gladioli and one red rhododendron for me?”

“Sure Ceinwyn, but do you really want a red rhodo…?”

“Yes,” I cut her off.

“Alright, the High Priestess told me to do whatever you needed of me. However, I need to be back by luncheon.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you. I have a lot to deal with today.”

“It wouldn’t be about those merchants would it.”

I twisted my mouth into a wry smile, “How do you know?”

“Everyone’s had something to say about them. It was funny watching them trying to choose what flowers to send to you.”

“Lavender. I couldn’t have done better if I chose it for them to give me.”

We laughed then Megan took her leave.

Emlyn returned with two large baskets full of catnip by midmorning, some of which I strewed around an empty bedroom. With the aid of three servants, I collected all the household cats and placed them in the catnip room.

When Megan returned, I felt some relief. She told me how Hywel’s servants had questioned her about my whereabouts and had assured them that I was resting in preparation for the evening’s festival.

“Thanks, for all your help.”

“I enjoyed it. I better go. See you at the stones, Ceinwyn.”


I prepared myself for the evening, donning the Cath Chwyrnu purple, cream and black. I dabbed on Jasmine oil to emphasise sensuality and wore hawthorn flowers and heather braided into my hair — for hope and protection from magic. In my hands I carried gifts for my uncle.

I led my household with my head held high through the cobbled streets out to the gravel path that led to the sacred stone circle. “I’m heading for damnation or liberty.” Astonished glances and a buzz of conversation followed the small troupe up the slope.

Looking straight ahead to the circle’s entrance, I spied the High Priestess, wearing her office’s golden Lynx mask and mottled cream cloak. Hywel, adorned in a Lord’s finery, stood opposite her. The Sandersons stood looking amused by the path.

I genuflected to the High Priestess and curtseyed to the Lord of the Virver. My household followed me.

We were the first to enter the sacred circle and stood before the central stage. Behind this rose two standing stones, carved with sacred symbols. Between them, the sacred mask, a snarling lynx, was hung — gold with copper- lined engravings and green garnet eyes.

I watched as Hywel stood with a smug smile, next to the dais, beaming at everyone. I suspected he thought that the deal would be sealed, and all is within his grasp.

As the sun lowered, the last rays penetrated the green eyes of the mask and scattered rainbows of light. The High Priestess mounted the stage. Megan handed the carefully prepared, sacred flambeau to the High Priestess who began the prayer to Lleu and held the torch amongst the rainbows of light that came from the green garnet eyes in the mask. It burst into flames and the crowd rejoiced. The gods were pleased.

Then followed a call for oaths to be made and witnessed. Hywel began to mount the dais and was shocked when the High Priestess annunciated, “Ceinwyn Cath Chwyrnu, come forward now.”

I squared my shoulders, raised my chin and mounted the stairs, carrying my tabby cat. Looking around, I spied Aidan and Dryw at the back. I began, “I have a pledge to make. It is known that I have had many suitors and accepted none. To resolve this, I have devised a test and will betroth myself to the man who passes it.” An excited murmur started, and I noted that Hywel was clenching his fists. I continued, “I have attached a key to my cat Shimar. It opens the key to my heart. I will betroth myself to whoever, catches Shimar, and finds and opens the object, one chance is given to each aspirant.”

Glowering, Hywel stormed onto the dais and shouted, “As your guardian, I forbid it. Who will monitor this?

“You are not my guardian uncle. My mother is and approves of my decision,” I said and gave him a Gladioli stalk — a clear message to back off. “This quest will be overseen by the High Priestess and her temple. A gift from my mother, Uncle,” and I handed him a red rhododendron. Murmurs went up in the crowd at the message — beware, or I will kill you. He paled visibly and left the dais.

The High Priestess said, “As representatives of the Gods, we will oversee this pledge. All who wish may participate and no interference, magic or mundane, will be tolerated.” I placed her hands over Shimar and muttered a small incantation then rubbed her hands over the cat.

In the fading light, the ceremony continued and as darkness fell the sanctified torch was touched to a bonfire. I left and walked home with my guards. We released Shimar and other cats with keys attached into the night. Then I ambled back to the bonfire and half-heartedly joined the dancing.


In the liminal light before sunrise, the household awoke to a pounding on the door. I dressed and had the door opened to a line of men holding cats. I laughed, “The game begins.”

I said, “I need parchment and a quill.”

“I Already have them,” said the High Priestess who waited with some of my household in the hallway with its forest and floral tapestried walls.

“Good, let’s start in the drawing-room.”

“Send the first one in,” I said and sat on the cushioned sofa, drawing a light blanket around me.

I shook my head, “That’s not my cat Harry.”

The next twelve were similarly dismissed.

Frustration was creeping in when I looked up and cried, “Shimar, there you are girl. Well done, Gareth. What do you think the key opens.”

“Come with me,” chirped Gareth in his unbroken voice.

We walked to the goat’s barn and gathered a crowd along the way.

“The key will open the door,” said Gareth.

“Try it,” I said.

The key fell through the hole.


I curled up around Shimar and awoke to find nana watching me.

“I saw you watching the chase from the roof last night, kitten,” she said

“I couldn’t sleep and wanted to watch people’s behaviour,” I said and stretched my arms.

“The Coraniaid left copies of their record with me and the Chief Magistrate. Your Uncle is being held in his chambers.”

“That’s quick.”

“Treason Is a serious matter kitten.”

“The Sandersons?” I asked.

“They’re still here, but they won’t succeed in this quest. Only someone who knows you well will work it out. You thought that out,” she said with a wry smile.

“Your mother’s impressed with how you are managing a tricky situation. She’s fuming about Hywel as are many.”

Sitting up, I sighed and said, “That’s a relief. I’ll have to replace the keys on the cats.”

“My friends are already doing it. Every cat in town will have a key attached tonight.”

“This is out of control.”

“It has caught everyone’s imagination. People appreciate the power game being waged before them. It will go down in legend.”

“Oh no,” I said as my cheeks flushed.


Thump went the knocker before dawn. I sighed and settled on the sofa. Seventeen admirers later I looked up and froze, Roger Sanderson stood there holding Shimar tightly around the abdomen as the cat whipped its tail from side to side. I held out my hands and said,

“Good morning, Roger, please give me my cat.”

“So, I have the right one,” he said, He pointed his index finger and said, “You mentioned that you like to read. The key to your heart — a book I bet. Where is your library?”

 Bemused, I said, “Follow me.”

Roger strolled along the book-laden shelves, locked behind glass doors. He read the spines. What book did my uncle think to be my treasure? I thought. He stooped down, smiled, and put the key into a lock. I laughed silently. The key failed to turn. “What,” he exploded, kicking the door, and shattering the glass.

He glared at me and said, “You were promised to me. I will have you.”

“Never,” I said, as I backed away crunching glass under my slippers.

“We carry the spark of the sacred Lynx and do not give our treasures away,” said the High Priestess.

“Stay out of this, old women,” said Roger. He strode towards me with his arm extended and grabbed my hand, attempting to drag me away. There was a commotion in the room as my guards arrived.

“Leave now and never return,” I said as I raised my chin and looked him directly in the eye.

“This isn’t over. I’ll claim what is mine,” said Roger.

The guards escorted him out of the house. He stalked off cursing my town and people.


At sunrise, a line of aspirants wound down the path. After nineteen cats had been presented, no sign of Shimar had left me anxious — Roger’s last words had frightened me though I was determined not to show it.

I looked up and saw Aidan holding a purring Shimar. Relieved, I grinned and stood as he gently handed me the cat.

“You took your time,” I said and untied the key.

“I let Shimar come to me, rather than chase her.”

“You’re the first to consider that, thank you,” smiling, I handed him the key. “Find the answer.”

“It will be something idiosyncratic to you,” said Aidan before he thoroughly explored the lower floor. “There is nothing personal of yours here.”

“Keep looking.”

Aidan walked in a circle, rubbing his chin. “Personal, maybe this key belongs upstairs?”

“Go ahead,” I said. Several people trooped upstairs and watched Aidan scrutinise each room.

Eventually, there was only the last room to check — my bedchamber.

“Let’s see now,” said Aidan. He gently pushed the door open and crossed the threshold. He scanned the room quickly and looked at me, I kept my head down as “just don’t give away any clues,” ran through my mind.

Aidan explored the room, opening the wardrobe and drawers looking for an answer. My desk beckoned him with its ink, quills and leather- bound book. He lifted the book and read my full name on the cover, smiling he looked at the four- lobed key and me. There was one place left. He moved to the end of my bed and lifted the trunk lid. He removed the bronze box. my eyes smiled lit up. Aidan grinned, “I see you, Ceinwyn Clover Cath Chwyrnu,” as he unlocked the bronze box, etched with a four-leaf clover. The box opened and he lifted out a scroll. The fey script radiated a faint golden glow — Love, Compassion, Thoughtfulness, Diligence, Honesty, Lead to Integrity.

“I see the integrity at your core,” he said, as he handed me the box.

“Thank you,” I said.

“So, we are betrothed now,” said Aidan.

“Oh yes, no-one else is acceptable to me.” I stepped into his embrace, and we captured each other’s mouths, displaying our affection before an amused audience.






[i][i] !. From an old Welsh Ballad about 1,000 years old. I changed the words a bit but the cadence is the same. From Cambro Britain. P2. On