Free Book Part 5
The morning was bright and clear as Llewelyn looked through the little window under the eaves at the sound of horses hooves clip-clopping into the yard. He watched a party of men enter the centre of the cobbled square. They did not dismount as expected, but one called on a boy from the stables.
The boy came, rubbing his eyes from the broken sleep that the party had caused.
Llewelyn felt Rhys at his elbow as he asked him what was happening.
‘I do not know,’ Llewelyn answered.
He watched the boy nod and point to the window and he hid himself back against the wall, out of sight.
Rhys roused the men and Llewelyn’s sons swiftly. Each of them armed themselves with their short bows, and as they quickly gathered their belongings, Griffith watched some of the party dismount and walk towards the door of the inn.
They were trapped.
‘Quickly,’ Rhys hissed through his clenched teeth. ‘You, Matthew, take those two men and get out the window of the back room onto the roof. Get down to the floor and in the side door of the stables. Get the horses out and then return and wait for the word. Conceal yourselves well, for they must not have chance to lift their weapons.’
The men obeyed his command immediately and left the room silently on bare feet to do their task.
‘You, Griffith,’ Rhys whispered, ‘take Ewan and the other two with the bundles out the window. But stay on the roof and arm your bows well.’
They ran from the room silently as had the men before them, unhesitating.
‘John, follow your father down the stairs. I shall be right behind you,’ Rhys said as he armed himself with a knife, concealed in his soft boot.
The three walked down the stairs swiftly and as they reached the bar of the inn they saw the three dismounted men face them across the room. In the stale smell of last night’s ale, as two men lay on the floor at the side of them, there came the proclamation that Llewelyn had dreaded. It had made his mind teem all night and his path suddenly opened up before his very eyes like a thunderbolt.
‘You there!’ the speaker said, standing between two men armed well. ‘Are you Llewelyn Bren, Lord of Senghenydd and Miskin?’
Llewelyn stepped forward towards them as he answered plainly, ‘Yes.’
The speaker looked him up and down as he jeered, ‘Don’t look much like a Lord to me, boys!’
His companions sniggered by his side.
‘What’s your business?’ Llewelyn spoke calmly, dignified in the face of this uncouthness that he despised. ‘Speak what you have to and keep your remarks under your belt.’
‘We have come to arrest you, My Lord.’
Sneering still, the speaker took out of his jerkin a roll of parchment that he unfurled before them.
‘Llewelyn Bren, Lord of Senghenydd and Miskin, you are summoned to Lincoln where we shall escort you to stand trial for insurrection against the crown and inciting your people to riot. Your crimes are thus . . .’
Thenceforth was drummed into the ears of John, Rhys and Llewelyn, a list of charges following his appearance before the King, of failing to control his people, of inciting them to be rebellious, of not setting the example that his King expected him to, and so on and so on.
‘You can come quietly, me lads, or you can come with a fight, because I love a good fight with a sneaking little Welshman!’ he laughed, showing rotten teeth in his red face.
Rhys stepped forward as Llewelyn held his hand before him, staying him as he said, ‘I shall come quietly, but let my men go now.’
The speaker looked around him. ‘We were led to believe that there were more than three of you.’
Rhys spoke quickly but surely. ‘The remainder of our party left last night.’
The speaker nodded. ‘Well, that makes our job easier then.’
As the speaker reached out and grasped his arm, Llewelyn shrugged him off as he spoke in his quiet, lilting voice, ‘I shall walk alone, thank you.’
He preceded the men out into the early morning sunlight as his son John followed, head bowed, Rhys behind them.
‘Saddle his horse, boy,’ the speaker called to the lad leaning against the side of the stable door. The boy turned at the command and entered the stable, scampering for his life up into the hayloft, jangling the coins in his pocket, smiling to himself at his days work.
As Llewelyn walked into the centre of the horsemen, his son John stood to one side. Rhys lunged at the back of the speaker, held his arm around his neck and placed his deadly little knife at his throat.
‘Move, any of you, and he is dead!’ he snarled through his gleaming white teeth. ‘Now, boys!’ he shouted, and on the rooftop appeared three men with their bows aimed into the cobbled yard, each with a wry smile on their face as they surveyed the scene.
With the cold, rough blade pressed hard against his throat, the speaker struggled for breath. The serrations were starting to pierce his flesh. His hoarse pleas made him sound pathetic.
Oblivious to this, Rhys shouted to Llewelyn and John, ‘Get the bundles and get to the horses!’
Llewelyn and John ran simultaneously into the open stable door and within seconds they were out the side door, mounted and ready. They threw their bundles over the front of the horses and Ewan slapped the rumps and shouted, ‘Ride and do not look back, My Lord! We shall follow you soon!’
Llewelyn and John rode for all their might, through the inn gate and out onto the dirt roads, pointing to home and to Luci.
Rhys dragged the speaker before him to the stable door as the four bowmen from the stables surrounded the party with their deadly arrows pointing at the hearts of the mounted men.
He shouted to the three on the roof, ‘Mount and get out of here!’ And they immediately jumped down from the roof and mounted the waiting horses that the bowmen from the stables had made ready.
‘Now you, Ewan!’ Rhys shouted as he dug the knife even further into the skin of the speaker’s neck. ‘Mount and follow them!’
Ewan raced past the party and out into the open road.
‘Ahh, not such scathing words now, my fine friend!’ Rhys spat. He dragged the speaker’s body across to his horse and pulled him up over the beast as he mounted, his dagger still pressed into the back of his neck, holding him fast.
The remaining bowmen mounted one by one, their arrows still aimed into the faces of the party, watching and waiting for the slightest movement.
‘Duw, man!’ Matthew shouted, ‘nearly let fly then, Rhys!’
His teeth gleamed white in his smiling face.
They were all mounted now and as the bowmen aimed, Rhys ordered the King’s party to dismount and walk into the stables. He slapped each of their horses rumps and sent them out of the yard onto the open road where they followed Ewan at quite a pace.
‘Now, boys, make for home!’ Rhys shouted as the three bowmen, bows still in hand, thundered out of the inn to follow their countrymen.
Rhys left the yard last as the men ran from the stables behind him. He threw the speaker into their path and thundered past. The last man out but my no means the least as the Welshmen escaped the dirty dry streets of London and headed home. Home to face what must be faced, home to fight for their freedom once again, as they always had and always would.
The ride home was long and tiring. The small band knew they had to make good time, so they camped in open country.
But they were wary.
They took turns as sentries all night, every last man of them. They slept as little as possible until they reached the borders of Wales. By the time they passed into their homeland they were a tired ensemble, but they were also relieved just to be on their native soil once again.
They rode into the castle of Rhodri ap Mynarch, who ran down the stone steps into the yard to greet them.
Llewelyn, his sons and his men slid off their mounts, bone weary and drained as Rhodri clasped his arms about his kinsman and asked him straight away how he fared with the King.
Llewelyn looked into his eyes and Rhodri knew it had not gone well.
‘Come,’ he said, putting an arm on Llewelyn’s shoulders. ‘You must bathe and rest for a little. Then we must talk.’
The bedraggled band followed their countryman into the safety of the staunch tower of the castle, knowing that they would sleep this night better than they had since leaving their homeland many weeks before.
Llewelyn bathed in the clear spring water that was carried to the bedchamber for him as his sons and men did in other chambers. He could not rest, though. He changed his clothes into the slightly more decent ones in his bag before descending to meet his cousin in the great hall where a roaring fire had been raised, which was slowly roasting a beast, being turned by servants of the castle, ready for the feast in their honour tonight.
The juices sizzled as they dripped into the crackling wood of the fire and the smell filled the whole of the great hall in its succulence, making Llewelyn salivate with hunger for good food.
‘Llewelyn, my friend,’ Rhodri spoke as he saw him enter, ‘you must rest a little.’
‘No,’ Llewelyn said. ‘I cannot rest but will sleep tonight well, Rhodri, in the shelter that you so amply provide, and when I have eaten of that oxen, there is no man alive that could rouse me from my slumber.’
He looked then into Rhodri's troubled face as he sat with him, relating to him the disaster of his pleadings with the Norman King.
Rhodri slammed his fist in temper into the skins that draped the stone seats, and his face grew livid as Llewelyn quietly poured out his shame at not being able to achieve what he had set out to do.
His kinsman looked at him and said, ‘What will we do now, Llewelyn? You know every man will bide with you and your decision.’
‘Yes,’ Llewelyn spoke as he nodded to his companion. ‘But I have no option, Rhodri. I knew in my heart before I left that there were only two options. One has been denied me and I shall not let them destroy my people.’
Rhodri leaned close to him.
‘I must gather my people now, Rhodri,’ Llewelyn spoke quietly. ‘It will be hard to lead them, but I shall. They will starve if we cannot stop them losing their lands. They have no beasts to survive from. Those are gone already. We are not crop raisers in my mountains, Rhodri. When our beasts are gone we have nothing. Our hills will not grow crops but they feed us well through our livestock. That is fast disappearing and if I let any more go we shall all starve.
‘I wish in my heart that there was another way, and I have prayed and prayed for some yielding to save my people. But there is none. All doors are closed but one, Rhodri.
‘The King will not withdraw his tax collectors, so I shall. I shall get rid of them the only other way I know how. I shall rid my lands of them one by one. I shall make sure they cannot return to bleed my people dry again. I have tried pleading with their masters and failed. I shall not fail this time. I shall plan well and act swiftly.
‘I ask one thing of you, Rhodri. If I should be taken or disposed of, look to my Luci. She will survive, I know, but just be there for her. Just make sure no harm comes to my family, Rhodri, for I should give my life for them a thousand fold.’
The big man looked on him then and said gently, ‘Do you have to ask, Llewelyn? Do you have to ask?’
Llewelyn turned to him and clasped him as he spoke with the first smile that Rhodri had seen play on his lips since seeing him, ‘Well there was no harm in making sure, was there.’
His smile struck daggers into Rhodri’s heart. He saw what this man would do flash right before his eyes. He himself would have tried but he knew that it was only this man who sat before him that could do it, for he had the strength of battle coiled in his deepest, gentlest parts, and when he raised his head, wearing his golden crown, Rhodri knew that no man would turn from him. His love for his people was returned in quantities that no Norman would ever experience.
Rhodri looked on his cousin and saw all that was good and beautiful being forced to become barbaric to save his people from slow starvation. He knew Llewelyn could not let it happen. He knew it was the worst of the two options, and looking into this mans face, he uttered to him, ‘You have me with you, Llewelyn, in whatever you do. You tell me when and we shall be ready.’
Llewelyn looked up into his face.
‘Now, Rhodri. There is no time to lose. I knew once we hit the borderlands that we would have to act. They will be behind us soon, for I am now an outlaw to this accursed Crown, and if I am to lead the people out of the stranglehold that has descended on them then it has to start right now and I shall not look back until I have finished my task.’
‘Then I am with you,’ Rhodri spoke. ‘We shall eat soon and sleep. I shall post extra lookouts tonight and when the sun rises in the morning we shall be ready to ride with you, Llewelyn, for as long as it takes.’
Llewelyn looked into the flames of the fire as he spoke, ‘I thank you for your support and trust, Rhodri, but make safe your family for we do not know who will return this time.’
Rhodri clasped his arm around Llewelyn again as he said, ‘We do not know what would happen if we did nothing either, do not forget, and your word is law to your people, so fear not, for better to die by the sword than in our beds, Llewelyn. Better a hero and remembered than an old man lying in his bed, starving and waiting to die. We shall ride at first light, Llewelyn, and we shall not look back until we are done. Your family and your people are behind you. Never forget that, for we are as one.’
Rhodri and Llewelyn sat for many hours, reminiscing over their childhood, talking of battles of old and watching the flames lick the meat that was their feast this night.
Slowly people appeared, people eager for news, who had had word that the band had returned, men who clasped the hand of Llewelyn and swore allegiance to their country, men who laughed in the face of battle, men and women who drank ale as the Bard Teuli – the Welsh poet laureate – Anwen lifted her sweet voice over that of the harp. And they feasted, drank and prepared in the only way they knew for the battle to come. They lifted their spirits in song, in ale and in food. They silently prayed and gave thanks for such a leader as this man. They gave him everything he could have wanted and more.
As Llewelyn walked unsteadily up the steps into his bedchamber that night, leaving his sons still frolicking in the feast and drowning themselves in the ale that was their right this night, he looked up to the sky and his soul called for his Luci, and he said to her silently: I am coming back, my cariad, I am coming home. Wait for me.
Luci knew in the morning light that he would be back soon. The dogs watched the tracks. They just lay there watching, day after day, and Luci knew they were safe and on their way home again.
Eleri stood with her and looked into her face smiling, as she also looked on the dogs, waiting and watching.
‘Time for a visit to the pool, Luci, for I think we shall be celebrating very soon,’ Eleri spoke in her sweet, lilting voice.
They laughed like children with one another and made plans to visit the pool that very evening, to see the sunset that they would not see too many times before their men were back where they belonged.