Griffith could feel the muscles in his legs contract and hurt. He grimaced every time his horse stumbled on the rough track leading down the side of the bare and bleak mountain. The valleys that they would travel were in front of them as they climbed down the steep slopes of the bleak, majestic mountains, down onto a flat, fertile plain below their feet, which they would take to the coast. They would hug the coast all the way to Cardiff before going inland to make for London. Yesterday they had travelled non-stop, every one of them.
As they lay under the stars, eating from out of their bundles, they had felt that bone weariness that comes from an overworked body and mind. Each one intent on their goal, mind and body set in grim determination, the band of gold wrapped around their hearts, and as they sat around the fire there had been spontaneous laughter as well as deep, dark moments.
‘Damn man,’ Griffith spoke to his friend Ewan, who lay on one elbow next to him, cleaning his gleaming white teeth with a hazel twig after a supper which had gone down well. ‘They marry our women, so why do they not melt and become as us, these men of steel? I do not want to spend my life fighting them. I want a life! I want to marry and raise children! Be like my father and someday lead my people into freedom from the yoke that is about us. This is why it has to be done now, Ewan bach, because we’ll then have all our lands back and will be much better prospects, you and I. Duw, man, watch them girls flock to us then! We’ll be able to pick and choose, you know! Now, where was it? I read in our books that there are places in the East where the men have many wives. Have you thought of that, Ewan?’
Griffith smiled at his own words as his friend spoke, ‘Go on, you! Many wives! You are jesting me!’
‘No!’ Griffith answered, his laughter hidden under the serious countenance he showed to his friend. ‘It is true, you know. They have what they call a harem, with lots of women being pampered, just for the husband to choose which one he wants that night!’
‘Well, duw, duw, Griffith! Do you think that Gwen and Nia and Eleri and all the others would mind doing that for us?’
Griffith could contain his laughter no longer and hit his friend playfully on the back. ‘For goodness sake, Ewan, get out your crwth and give us a song! You can even sing of dreams of having your own harem, if you like! But I can just imagine your mam’s face if you tried to make a harem of welsh girls! For God’s sake, Ewan, sing something before I hurt myself laughing!’
Ewan playfully punched his friend and smiled, saying to him, ‘Ahhh, Griffith, you are your father’s son, you know! You will lead the people, too. You have already led me in the last few minutes – on a long string, I think! But to dream of a harem tonight is worth it, my friend. To dream of many women in your bed instead of one is a real pleasure to us Welshmen, who know how to love, eh, Griffith!’
Ewan spoke dreamily as he started to strum on his little crwth, the plaintive hum starting to make the music that would force them willingly into song: ‘Next time you see Nia, ask her if she wants to be in my harem. See what she says. And if she agrees, she can be the only one in mine, Griffith. I do not know about you but I think these harem women must be awful different to Welsh women. I do not think our girls would take kindly to being chosen from a harem, as you call it. I have a nagging suspicion that their bows would be put to good use if we attempted that, my friend, and we should have the wrath of them descend on us faster than old Twm Shion slipped into hell when he died after all his evil doings!’
The two friends fell laughing onto the springy turf as Griffith saw a fleeting vision before his eyes. It was the vision of his mother letting him go, his mother sending him on his way, her face in his heart as he silently smiled to his vision and whispered, ‘Oh, yes, mam, he is right, who would ever want more than one welsh girl? One is more than us men can handle ever.’
Luci watched the hawks soar into the sky above her. She sat in the saddle of her sturdy horse and felt her body soar with them, up and up they circled, watching below them with their round, blinkered eyes, watching and waiting for their prey as she called to the beaters, ‘Give them a few more minutes.’
She turned her head skyward again into the brilliant clear blue. She held out her arms wide as she called to them, as she mimicked their cries, and they called back to her, these beautiful birds that she reared from young, that she soared with when she was troubled and who came to take her in the night with them and lift her out of herself to fly in the valleys below their bellies. Yes, Luci knew exactly how they felt. She had flown with them, she had seen through their eyes, the eyes that they watched her with when she grounded them and brought them back to her with their unblinking stares. They were her soul seekers. From them she could hide nothing at all. When she was troubled she would fly them and watch, feeling herself lose her worries, if only for a little while, and feel the inner strength that was hers return to her.
Not a bird was seen, apart from the majestic hawks, not a sound from the chattering finches and warblers, nothing to be seen other than the company of beaters and riders standing still in the bracken, watching and waiting. Oh, to be as free as that now!
She turned her head and shouted, ‘Get them out now, boys!’
As sticks began to rake the bracken, as pheasants and grouse startled from their hiding places rose like a cloud over their heads, the hawks swooped down like arrows flying. Down and down at the speed of lightening they fell. There were no plaintive mews now, there was no sound on the steep craggy hillside other than frantically whirring wings as the fat grouse and black hens fell to the floor lifeless, the hawks taking them in a split second from flying on the wind to plummeting like stones to the bracken from where they had flown.
The valley was still, no sound from the breeze that warmed and braced the skin and senses in the wind that never died. Luci watched each calculated swoop as she thought, how do they do that? So deadly and so skilfully, the hunter and the hunted, the weak and the strong, the might of so few destroying in one foul swoop so many.
She called the hawks back to their perches in the clearing where they sat unblinking, unfeeling for so much death, only hungry for the choice morsels that they would now receive after the battle, the feast that was theirs.
The horses picked their way carefully over the stony paths back to the castle, the smell of food wafting in the air towards them as they neared the strong outer walls.
I am hungry, Luci thought as her daughters behind reminded her that they had not yet eaten either. She turned and smiled at them as she answered their pleas, ‘Yes, and make sure you eat it all, for think where your father and brothers are right now. No hot food for them, I am sure.’
The youngest with her asked from low down beside her on her pony, ‘Mammy, when will they return? I do miss them so much, you know.’
‘Soon, daughter, soon,’ Luci replied thoughtfully.
‘They have been gone too long already,’ spoke the young voice behind Luci as she looked behind her daughter to watch the beaters and handlers come up the winding path that cut into the steep slope like a snake, their bound arms carrying the hawks, as she had many times. They are so light yet so heavy to carry, I know.
They came closer as Luci looked past them at the glorious mountains in the distance, the valleys beneath them, listening to the sounds of the chattering finches start again on the valley floor now the hawks were leaving. She smiled, knowing that they would carry on life, as before, it would be as if they had never intruded and they would eat well of the kill of the hawks tonight.
She led the little party into the castle gate towering above them as the hands brought in the kill and took them up the stone steps to the kitchens, where a good hearty meal awaited them for their pains.
Llewelyn Bren, together with his sons and company of men, rode into London in the year of 1314. His sons looked amazed at the squalor. The people looked on, puzzled by these men that travelled far and spoke with a strange tongue amongst themselves. They spoke English in a funny sing-song way too, but they knew how to speak it well.
They asked directions from people at the sides of the dirt roads. Their strong horses were weary, as were they, but they rode like men of substance, carrying heavy bundles, but not dressed as men who owned such horses. People wondered where they had got such fine beasts, and how. Their teeth gleamed white as they smiled to one another at sights they were seeing, at the odd stares, as they traversed the dusty roads leading into the centre of the city.
‘Duw, Griffith, are we that bad that we stand out in the great city like a band of jesters then?’ spoke the melodious voice of Ewan.
As usual, Griffth made his friend chuckle as he answered, ‘I think there are a few more jesters here than us lot will ever be, Ewan!’
The bedraggled band stopped at an inn, slid from their horses and called for bed and stabling for the night. At once a number of boys came running to take the horses from them as they unpacked their dusty bundles and stripped the tackle off the horses swiftly, leaving only a head harness on, to enable the boys to lead them to their stabling for the night.
The youngsters collected around Ewan at the sight of his crwth and he showed them willingly as he plucked the strings and pulled out a tune for them swiftly and expertly.
Llewelyn turned to them.
‘Ewan, you remind me so of your father when you pluck those strings, boy, and that is the first bit of sweet music we have heard since entering this city.’
To hear the harp strings never failed to make any Welshman dream and think of home. They called it their ‘hiraeth’ – something that lived in their very beings when they did not walk on their native soil. It was their longing for their homeland and each of them felt in unison at this moment, this small band, each one knowing what the others felt, each one thinking of their hills, their valleys, their sweet smelling breeze and the women and children that waited for them to return. And how they wanted to be there now, so badly that it pained them to think.
‘Save the crwth for later, Ewan boy, for I have a feeling we shall all need a taste of home in this desolate place,’ Rhys called as they entered the low door of the inn, hoping that the beds would not be infested, and that they knew how to serve a good meal. At least the ale would put a song in their hearts this night, for nothing else here made them want to sing.
The rooms were secured and paid for, as was a hearty meal. Rhys took Ewan with him to check that the horses were fed and stabled well for the night, and then they sat around the large wooden tables to wait for their food.
‘Are we all to go to the King tomorrow?’ John asked of his father.
Llewelyn answered him, ‘No, John, we must take care here.’
‘Do not think you will leave any of us behind,’ Griffith spoke hastily.
‘Hush now, boy, and listen,’ came the calm voice of Rhys. ‘We have come with your father, for he is the great thinker, and what he decides we follow. Do not forget that you are not as wise as him yet, mind.’
Llewelyn looked around him and smiled, for what man could wish for better company in a strange land?
‘My sons should come with me,’ he spoke to his band, ‘for that is their right, but I have a mind to take only one.’
Instantly, the two boys broke into an argument as Ewan laughed and brought peace with the words, ‘Now, now, bickering like girls, is it!’
Llewelyn spoke quietly but with the authority that they knew so well as he painted a picture for them with his words: ‘Griffith, you must stay here, for if anything should go wrong you will be the head of our house, boy, and it will then be your place to get back as quickly as possible, for which reason I am not taking Rhys with me also.’
Griffith’s face dropped but he knew better now than to speak. One by one the expressions flashed across each face as they were told if they would go to the King with their Lord or if they would stay. Llewelyn chose wisely and they all accepted their Lord’s words as he made his decisions.
‘Rhys, you are the best bowman I have and it will be your task if we do not return to get my son and men back to protect the castle with Luci, for if we do not return they will come to my home to seize that, as you well know.’
Llewelyn chose his younger son and three others to accompany him to the King on the morrow, and one of those he chose was to stay outside the palace waiting for word to take back to the inn, where the remainder of the band would wait for news.
Llewelyn would face the might of the Norman King on the morrow, with two bowmen of Wales to accompany him and his younger son, whose face showed now the trust he had in his father as he looked up from the book he had on his lap, wanting to lose himself in it and not think of what could happen.
‘My father, I shall serve you well,’ John spoke as his father looked on him.
‘Read your book, my son, for in that you will find your way, as I did mine.’
Griffith rose to his feet.
‘Well, let us drink to the success of tomorrow, and Ewan, get out your crwth, my friend, and let us show these foreigners how to feast, how to eat and how to love, and by damnation we shall show them how to sing tonight!’
His mother’s son, Llewelyn thought. All the vivacity in the world tied up in little bundles, reaching out, gathering in and nourishing, for who could ever be lost with Luci and her smile?
That same smile flashed before him now, the same smile that melted his heart and made a strong man want to cry.
Llewelyn drank heartily until the feeling subsided, and he watched Luci on the mountain with her beloved hawks as she flew into his soul with the ale and the sound of his companions’ lilting, beautiful voices. And he wanted to drown with her right there and then, drown in her love, her compassion and her strength, which he needed so badly now and which he knew she had given to him.