The Starling

Last week Branwen was forced to take the punishment for her brother’s crime and work in the kitchens…

Leaves fell from the trees, and the weather grew colder and colder. Branwen stepped through every day in a silent world of her own, from her sheepskin by the chimney corner, to the fireplace, to the kneading trough, and back again. The other kitchen maids gossiped and giggled, the cook barked orders, and everyone got on each other’s nerves. Except for her. She felt like she was living in a nightmare, where you can see everyone but they can’t see you.

She watched and listened, soon gathering that Matholwch had forbidden any traffic with Wales, and any men that arrived from there by chance were instantly killed. There was no hope.

One day, as she trudged back from the latrine through crunching snow, she spied a fluffy brown blob, dark against the crisp blanket.

Branwen picked it up. A little starling. Its wings fluttered and beat feebly against her hands. Her heart quickened. A friend.

She clasped it close and ran back to the kitchen, sneaking in through the back door and quickly hiding it in her sheepskin. “Get warm,” she whispered into the soft down. “I’ll be back with some food for you.”

When she came back with some wet oatmeal in a shell, the little bird nibbled at her fingers and made soft noises as it ate. Branwen smiled.

The starling stayed nestled in the warmth for a while, and then began to hop about a bit, but never out into the open. It would always greet Branwen with excited chirping when she came to sleep, or when she gave it food. One night, as she huddled down, the bird snuggled up to her as usual, and she gasped. Was that a flash of gold feathers under its wing?

She carefully took her little friend in one hand and lifted the wing further. It gazed brightly at her and chirped merrily. And then, before her wondering eyes, the dull brown fell away and gold illuminated the little corner.

Branwen stared, eyes round. What was this bird? Her mind scrambled. It was magical, that was obvious.

As she gawped, the starling seemed to smile. It fluttered up to the open window and out. Branwen gasped and jumped up. Was it going to leave her, now she had found out its secret?

But the bird stopped in a tree branch that swooped down to greet the windowsill.

“Don’t desert me,” Branwen begged, silently.

The bird opened its beak – and sang. A soft, sweet melody, perfectly in tune. The notes hung in the air like the echo of a flute, and Branwen’s heart lifted and ached to the sound. Then it dawned on her.

“The Lady Rhiannon has sent one of her birds to me! This means it will be able to understand me – this means I can send a letter to Wales!”