It took Llewelyn more than two days to gain audience with the King. For two nights he had returned to the inn to report that he had been kept waiting and told to return on the morrow. Now at last he faced the King himself, sat on his gilded throne, expressionless and as cold as the mountains in winter.
John stood behind his father, white faced and trembling inside but showing none of this outwardly, supporting his father by laying a hand on his shoulder as they stood there before the Norman King. Each band of gold was perfect in its simplicity against the splendour of the throne and crown of the King. John was flanked by the two chosen bowmen and as they all kneeled to pay homage to this King their thoughts were as one in their hopes and in their hatred of the usurpers.
‘Tell me, My Lord Llewelyn,’ the King spoke, ‘to what do we owe this honour?’
Llewelyn stood and answered, ‘Your Highness, I come here to plead for my people. The taxes being put on them are more than they can bear. For what reason do you want to beggar your people, Your Highness?’
The King looked at him contemptuously as he answered,
‘I beggar no one! My taxes and those of my chosen advocates are no more than your people should be expected to pay!’
‘But, Your Highness,’ Llewelyn carried on, unswerving in his determination to pursue his aim, ‘they lose their lands after their livestock is taken, for they have no money to pay taxes. We are subsistence farmers, Your Highness. We do not grow rich on our lands. We make a living, we feed our own and we live quietly and see each to his own. But that living is being destroyed by your Lord Pagan de Turberville.’
‘Silence!’ the King spoke. ‘Pagan de Turberville is my envoy. Your grandfather and father fought this crown, My Lord Llewelyn, and you alongside them, so do not slander my envoys who seek to dispel any insurgence amongst your people!’
‘Your Highness,’ Llewelyn carried on, ‘my people want peace, but they need their land to live. The rights of gathering firewood even has been taken from them.’
‘Why should these vagrants have my wood for nothing?’ the King spoke sneeringly. ‘You talk of rights? But there are no rights! They are given by your King and are not rights but privileges. Privileges to be given to whom we see fit, and if My Lord de Turberville sees fit to withdraw privileges then he acts wisely.’
‘Your Highness,’ Llewelyn answered, ‘we have a treaty that gives us the right to govern ourselves and pay homage to yourself as the King. We have upheld the treaty, Your Highness, and do not seek to reclaim lands that have been taken from us. We need to be able to support our families and we are being denied that right.’
The King turned to his counsellors and advisors who attended him constantly and spoke again after minutes, which ticked like hours in the heads of the four Welshmen.
‘Prince Llewelyn of the Welsh, your people are a conquered people and as soon as they understand the meaning of that then they will be given privileges that we see fit to bestow. They do not pay homage to their Lord de Turberville, as they should. I have received emissaries from him speaking of the insolence of your people. They do not show humility as they should and are hard to keep track of.’
‘Your Highness,’ Llewelyn answered, ‘my people are not subservient because that is not our way. We work alongside our people, for everyone must work. No one man can carry another. You do not want the lands we have been left with. You have taken from us all that was more productive.’
As Llewelyn spoke, he knew that his wisdom had failed him. The King turned to his favourite at his side and the looks and whispers struck into Llewelyn’s heart like spears about to fall.
The King turned.
‘My Lord Llewelyn, we have taken nothing. You are on land that you say is yours as a privilege that could be withdrawn at any time. The might of my armies could descend on you tomorrow and reclaim that which is theirs by right. You are there on sufferance. Do not presume any different.’
Llewelyn seethed and had difficulty in speaking as he replied to the King, ‘Your Highness, I do not seek to offend the Crown, only to plead for my people. We stay away from your towns where we are not welcome, and we live from the land that is granted to us by your Grace, but we need all of that land to support the people that have lived there since time began. We work with the monks, Your Highness. We farm and raise livestock. Our ways and needs are simple. But we cannot survive with those lands and privileges being withheld from us.’
‘My Lord Llewelyn,’ the King answered, ‘my advisors tell me that your lands are many and that your people still rise up at the slightest provocation. Perhaps they need to be without so they will learn that their King is not weak but strong, to be unable to rise up and bite the hand that feeds them.’
Llewelyn heard the gasp from his son behind him and stood strong for them both as he replied, ‘Your Highness, grant us leave from the tax collectors to enable us to farm well and raise our livestock up to a level that will support us again, and we shall pay your taxes. But now it is impossible. Now we have nothing to give.’
The King, still expressionless, turned to his advisors again and Llewelyn and his band stood before him, waiting and waiting as time ticked inside their heads and drummed into their ears.
‘My Lord Llewelyn, your people will pay the taxes or they forfeit their lands. My Lord de Turberville speaks of the ways of your people. They lie, cheat and hide their wealth from their Lords to avoid having to pay their dues. I shall hear no more of this petty pleading. I have more important matters to attend to.’
Llewelyn moved forward a pace and was restrained by a guard who stood in front of him as he spoke, ‘Your Highness, I cannot contain a starving nation. You must relent or I cannot be held responsible for the consequences. I beg Your Highness to reconsider. I have travelled far to seek this counsel and demand that you reconsider our plight.’
The King rose to his feet as the bowmen flanked Llewelyn, and the guards moved in closer.
John walked forward.
‘Your Highness, I beg you!’ he cried. ‘Listen to my father, for he is a kind and just man and would seek to live in peace.’
The King showed expression on his face now as he spoke, spitting out his words at the people confronting him, ‘Get them out of my sight, now! They disgust me, take them away! Is it children that now wear the pathetic crown of the Welsh? It seems so!’
Grief struck into the very soul of Llewelyn. He stood with his head bowed, staring at the floor, unseeing, fighting the blind rage that welled up in him, fighting the rage that threatened to destroy him. He closed his eyes and wished with all his heart and soul that he had the arms of Luci around him now. He was not a weak man. He was strong, he knew. But because of his family, because of Luci’s love, and because he did not want to be here in this strange land, where the vicious tongues pierced him harder than the spears and arrows of the battle field ever could, he wished for Luci now.
He had come to fight for his people and had failed. A plan started that instant in his mind. He must control his rage, for a clear head was what would help him now. In that split second before he turned and walked from the gilded room, Llewelyn Bren saw his path mapped out in front of him, as clear-cut as a night sky lit to near daylight by the moon. He knew what he had to do, and it would be done.
Head held proud, he walked from the palace, mounted his horse with his son and bowmen and rode in complete and utter silence back to the inn. Griffith saw his expression and asked nothing as he walked past them to the little room under the eaves. He took out his book and buried his head in his hands, forcing himself to see the words as they jumped at him, screamed at him. He read the same words again and again, not turning the page once during the night. He sat there into the early hours, fighting with the demons that threatened to take over his very soul.
Luci lay in her chamber as the image of her husband’s face looked right through her, into her very being. She fought with the thoughts that threatened to destroy her. She would not fail in her life. Llewelyn would return to her, she knew. He was coming home. But how could she keep this secret from him? How would she be able to love with him, to take him in her arms knowing that she had been tainted? It was draining her strength, it was threatening her very being, engulfing her every thought, wrapping her in its evil folds.
She needed help, she knew. She could not fight alone. She was failing, but she could not let Llewelyn know this. Yet how could she not? For she would betray herself. How could she talk to anyone? How could she tell?
God, help me, she prayed silently, help me to overcome my thoughts, help me to bury this thing that threatens to engulf me. He took my body but I was unwilling, he ravaged me and I did not feel, so why oh why can I not forget?
Her moans broke from her in anguished cries. She stifled her face in the rough blankets, bit her lips to stop her cries being heard. She could not fight it any longer. She was finished.
She heard nothing in her grief until she felt arms touch her and hold her head. She smelled the sweet smelling hair as it fell across her face and she buried herself in it as the sobs racked her body, as her stifled screams threatened to break from her very soul and fly out into the darkness of the night.
She heard singing, soft singing in her deepest moments. She felt softness engulf her as her body racked with pain. She smelled the sweetness and saw a ray of light shining in front of her and she was never alone through the night as she relived every moment, again and again in her mind.
Luci opened her swollen eyes. The birds’ morning song woke her and she was at peace. Her head lay on softness itself and the arms wrapped around her were as warm as the sunshine that flooded through the narrow window in the wall of the bedchamber.
She looked up into the soft, beautiful face of Eleri, hair tumbling about her, eyes looking into her own as she said, ‘Shhhh, my cariad, I know. You told me. I do not need to know anything more. I shall protect you now.’
Luci’s tears started softly, not anguished, just running down her face as she took Eleri’s hair in her hands and buried her face in it, kissing it softly as she cried gently, a healing cry for what she had lost.
Eleri held her to her breast, held her to her heart and soothed her once again, knowing now that the crisis had passed. She would eat again, she would grow strong again and she would survive this terrible thing that had been done to her.
In that moment, Eleri made a vow also, a vow that she knew she would fulfil, a vow from her heart that had held Luci’s last night and drawn her anguish into her own, to be salved and handed back in the morning light.
She held Luci from her.
‘We shall go to the river, Luci,’ she said. ‘We shall go there now and cleanse our souls together and our bodies in the pool that is ours, the pool that he defiled, but that runs with clear water now, clear water that will wash your hair and make you beautiful and smell sweet for when your Llewelyn returns with my Rhys. And we shall face them strong, as we are, for they need our support and love, Luci, and we shall never fail them. Then we shall return to eat and your new life starts from today, my cariad, stronger than you ever knew, for what he sought to master shall rise up and engulf him and you shall see the weakness that is him before your time and mine are done.’
Eleri stood, held out her hand to her beloved Mistress and dressed her as she stood there. She led her to the stables, asked for two horses to be made ready and sat with her on the hay, watching the birds play in the morning sunshine, watching her and knowing she would never let her be hurt again.
They mounted the horses as Eleri nodded to the ostler and said, ‘Expect us back within two hours.’ And then she led Luci’s horse out through the gate and down the valley to the river.
Luci shook with the cold as she removed her clothes again and laid them at the side of the pool on the same sycamore branch that she had taken them from only a few days before, not remembering how she had dressed herself then.
Eleri stayed beside her, taking off her clothes, laying them down on the same branch as she constantly watched Luci’s face, wary of her reaction.
They slipped quietly into the pool this time. Luci could not dive in, for that was gone. The frolicking that she engrossed herself in, lost her time in, was tainted now beyond redemption in her mind.
She walked into the water holding Eleri’s hand tightly, feeling her hand on her elbow. The water felt cool and refreshing on her skin, leading her into its depths. She floated with Eleri, and they talked and talked. They talked of their husbands, of their childhood, of the times they had loved, and the times they had cried. Eleri took her back in time. She helped her to find the good times again, taught her in that pool in the early morning light to never give up, taught her that there was light at the end of every road if one travelled long enough and just held on.
Then they swam to the edge of the pool, where Luci lay on the rocks as Eleri washed her hair for her with herbs that they had gathered on the way to the river. She washed and massaged her scalp gently. She told Luci to close her eyes as she bathed her face, as she ran her hands over her arms, over her legs and over her belly with mint and verbena gathered from the banks they had travelled. She cupped her hands in the water and let it
trickle over her body as she rinsed her hair in the pure cleanliness of the river, the tinkling water hitting the rocks and running back to the river and away to the sea.
She held her hand then as she rose, as she threw back her hair to let the water trickle down her back, and Luci smiled at her friend who had cleansed her body and soul here in the same river where it had been tainted. The pool was once again theirs, brought back to them now for future use. But never alone again, never alone, for they would travel to the river together whenever they wanted, to bathe themselves for their husbands, for their lovers, for their cleanliness of body and spirit, which could never be taken away from them. Ever.
This pool was theirs, their children’s and their husbands’. Nothing could take that away from them. One man had tried, and he had failed. Eleri would not let him win. She had vanquished him as he lay in his bed, as he thought of the woman he had taken but who had escaped him, if only he had known it.
They dressed in silence then mounted and rode at a gallop on their fine beasts up the mountain paths, chasing one another and laughing freely in the beauty that surrounded them.
They dismounted at the stables and ran to the kitchens, into the warmth and smells that enticed them there, where they fell to their knees to embrace the little ones who were eating heartily, to show them their love for them and for the new day beginning in their hearts. They took their places at the table and ate heartily, knowing that they could face anything together. They were stronger now than they had ever been.