They rode at daybreak, with over two hundred men from the castle and stronghold of Rhodri Ap Mynarch. They watched the dawn break as the bands of gold were placed on the heads of Llewelyn and his sons by the wife of Rhodri before they left. The bundles of food and milk were handed to each man of the household.
Others had come with their bundles, given by their wives, mothers and sweethearts. Many carried their bows about their bodies and the fletchers had been up all night honing arrows for their needs. Many had no weapons in sight but each had armed themself as best they could.
The cheer arose as Llewelyn raised his head with the band of gold glinting even in the mist that hung over them like a cloud. His sons behind him, proud as they surveyed those who had come to stand with them in their hour of need, as they held their heads high, displaying the inheritance that was theirs.
They moved out slowly as horses reared and heads were turned in to their beloved country. They would venture now into the Norman towns, for that was where they would find their prey. They were intent on ridding themselves of the bloodsuckers in their midst and they knew, each one of them, that they had no choice. When you have given all you can give and they ask for more, then you must say no, and they were saying no now in the voice of a nation, in the voice of one man and of many. Each man here had been taxed, each one here had no more to give and each one followed their Lord faithfully into the depths of the country they loved.
They approached the first town and more men appeared out of the villages and hamlets they traversed. Word was sent before them and each gave who they could and what they could.
They camped outside the first Norman town they came to, and twelve good men entered with Llewelyn Bren at their head. Once again he would not take both sons with him, but this time he took Griffith instead of the studious John, watching their faces as they accepted his word unflinchingly, with no bickering like girls any more.
Rhys rode alongside Llewelyn, as did Rhodri. Ewan rode alongside his friend, Griffith, behind the three leaders. The dismounted men sent out sentries to watch their flank and their back as emissaries were sent ahead to take the news into the deepest valleys and hills of Gwent and Glamorgan. Riders would go on from the places they reached to prepare those ahead, and so it would go on until their task was finished.
As Llewelyn and his band entered the town, people watched them, seeing the crowns flash on their heads. Some ran alongside them as they led them to the mayor’s home. Others ran to fetch any weapons they could lay their hands on, and horses, if they had them, to ride with their countrymen.
The band surrounded the house stealthily, Llewleyn, Rhys, Griffith and Ewan entering through the kitchen door, armed to the hilt, with their knives and bows at the ready. They found the mayor in his bed and they dragged him from it, screaming in terror as his wife and children looked on in horror.
Llewelyn brushed them aside as the mayor, the bloodsucker, the tax collector, was dragged into the street and to the nearest tree, where a rope was thrown over a high branch. A horse was positioned ready. The mayor’s hands were tied behind his back and the noose placed over his head. People looked on and cheered. Some looked on in horror and others fled for their lives, throwing possessions into bags and making ready horses before the deed was even done.
Ewan walked towards the screaming man, pushed a rag into his mouth.
‘Die like a man, you wretch! For you have grown fat while we have starved, and you should die as a man for your family, if nothing else!’
They stood back, an insignificant group of armed men, as Rhys made to finish the deed, and Llewelyn’s arm stayed him.
‘No, Rhys,’ he said, ‘this is my task. I shall not flinch from what I do, for what I do is the only thing left to save my people.’
Llewelyn walked forward, head held high, band of gold on his head, marking him for all to see as he slapped the rump of the horse, sending the mayor to his death. One of the men held his legs as he kicked, and then swung on him to hasten the deed.
When it was done they cut him down, retrieved the noose that would kill many before their battle was over, and left his grieving family to bury him as they rode out of the town and to their waiting army.
Not one spoke of the deed that was done, only knowing that they would do whatever they had to do, for the battle was started and it would be finished, one way or another, before their days ended.
By the time that Llewelyn Bren and his band had reached the next town and tax collector, his numbers were over four thousand strong. The revolt that he had been accused of by the Norman King was escalating into a war.
Luci saw the dogs move restlessly, ears pricked, watching more intently now as the animals shifted their feet and got ready to break their slumbers. She called for Twm to tell Eleri that there was news on its way as she raced up the stone stairs into the square tower. Up and up she went, looking out of every arrow slit window as she passed eagerly. She reached the windy battlements, put her hand to her brow to shield the rising sun and scanned the horizon for dust trails or movement. She spotted the rider after about ten minutes of waiting and then she smiled to herself, whispering to the wind: He is coming home, he is coming home.
The lone rider was still about two miles away when she saw him. Eleri arrived breathless at her side. Luci turned to her, excitement shining in her eyes, and hugged her and danced around with her in her arms.
Eleri looked at where Luci pointed, saw the dust trail and said, ‘Luci, it’s news, we must be prepared for anything.’
‘No, I feel such wonderful hope in me. I know they are safe and well and they are coming home. I feel Llewelyn call out to me, I feel him reach out to me in the nights and I am holding him, calling his name and smiling as I awaken.’ Luci looked into her friend’s eyes and smiled warmly. ‘This is news of them coming home. I feel them coming closer with every breath. I just know they are heading home.’
The two women ran down the steps and into the centre of the castle as Twm swung open the massive wooden doors, eager in his anticipation, as were Luci and Eleri. News travelled fast within the castle and people appeared with their children fast on their heels, all running to await the news after weeks of wondering.
Eleri could not dispel the nagging feeling in her mind for her friend. Please, Luci, please do not hope for too much. The feeling had been with her for days. Something was not right. She waited eagerly with her beloved Mistress but was ready as always, practical to the very core for anything that would come. She knew it was news, yes, but what news? Was her husband safe? Was he coming home too? She wanted to feel the elation she saw on Luci’s face but for some strange reason she felt a foreboding deep in her very soul that would not let her sing.
The rider rode in through the castle gate flanked by two rows of armed Welshmen, ready as always for anything that would come. He swung from his horse, which two young boys quickly seized by the bridle, and he bowed to his Lady Luci as she held out her hand to him.
‘Do not stand on formality,’ she spoke. ‘Please give us your news, we have waited too long for it already.’
The emissary stood, weary from riding, and answered, ‘There is much to tell you, My Lady.’
‘Please,’ Luci pleaded, ‘just let us know firstly, are they well? Are they close? Where are they?’
The emissary bowed his head and answered calmly, this man that had ridden hard, for it was given to his loyal hands by Llewelyn himself to break the news to his people and his family,
‘My Lady, they are all well and all on their way home.’
‘Thank God,’ Eleri muttered at Luci’s side as she broke into tears at the words. ‘Thank God.’
Luci turned first to her people and shouted at the top of her voice, ‘They are well, my people, my friends, and they will return!’
‘There is also much to tell you, My Lady,’ the words of the emissary broke in to her elated soul.
‘Yes,’ Luci answered, turning to him again.
‘Would you like to eat first and bathe, for we will feast this night in your honour, for no matter what else you have to say, the words that I have waited for have been said.’
The emissary took her hand in his as he answered, ‘My Lady, we are at war.’ He reached into his loose jerkin and produced a roll of parchment and handed it to Luci. Her hands lovingly touched it as she lifted it to her nostrils to drink in the very scent of her husband.
She stood strong and proud, hearing the gasps of those around her drum into her ears as Eleri held her arm and whispered to her, ‘My Lady Luci, are you hearing him?’
Luci turned to Eleri and smiled through her tear-streaked face as she answered her friend simply, ‘I did not think that he would have any joy with the King and I knew in my heart that my men were safe. Yet I knew the feeling of elation inside me was for my husband and sons, rearing up their heads at the Norman throne.
‘I saw the bands of gold in my dreams, Eleri, for their blood runs in my veins, their souls are entangled in mine. I knew what was coming. We have to fight by the sword and the bow, Eleri. We have to suffer for our freedom. I do not live in a rose-coloured world, my friend. Oh, yes, I knew what would come and I am ready, thanks to you. I am ready to face it, to fight for my freedom, as does my husband for his people.’
Eleri smiled then, knowing her Rhys was heading home, knowing that she too would ride to meet them. They were alive and well, and that was all they needed to know right now. The strength that they all needed was so deep-rooted in them that there was nothing to stop her smiling now, nothing to stop her hugging her Mistress.
‘Yes, My Lady, my smiles are settling on flower-filled meadows with yours again, for whatever comes we are ready, as we always have been, it is our heritage and we shall rejoice this night for that which is in us.
‘We shall never be afraid of war, Luci. It’s in our blood. It’s what runs in our veins. It’s what makes us strong and what makes us sing so sweetly.’
Luci shouted to all around as the word spread through the throng gathering around them, ‘Tonight we feast! Tonight we declare our loyalty to the earth we walk upon, for our Lords are returning with an army and it is us who will meet them and fight alongside them.
‘Be ready, as you always are, for this battle will be for our survival. Perhaps it will throw off the Norman yoke at last. Your Lord needs you now, as he always has. He can help you no more. You must fight and stand beside him, for he will never desert you and I know in my heart not one of you would ever desert him.
‘Get ready for the feast, my people! Bring in the Bard Teuli, for she has a message to bring to our hearts. Let the scribes record for our bards what we will learn this night, for tonight we sing the song of war again. Tonight we lift up our spirits and ask for strength from our forefathers, from our Lord, from our makers, for what will come. But remember that whatever comes we have the strength to meet it and survive. We have survived thus far, we shall survive again.
‘Now make way for the emissary. I shall take counsel with him, as shall the men left to guard us. We shall hear the words that Llewelyn sends to his people and we shall know all by the time of the feast. You will be informed of what we need do to aid our Lord.’
The throng parted and the emissary was ushered through the great hall and up a great stone staircase to a chamber by Luci herself, where he was made comfortable. People arrived with fresh water to fill his washing bowls, with drinks for his thirst and smiles for the man who had brought them mixed news. He had put a song into their hearts with the most important news of all; their people were returning home, albeit at the head of an army.
Luci sat on Llewelyn’s seat at the window of their chamber, running her hands over his books and whispering softly to him. She held the parchment to her breast, knowing she had to open it but needing to drink in its sweetness first.
She carefully broke open the seal and unfolded the parchment. Before her eyes were the words of her Lord, greeting her, calling her his love, spilling out his thoughts to her, so many miles away yet so close that she could feel his breath on her neck.
My wife, my people, I humbly beg forgiveness of you all for my failure to get by reasoning what we needed so badly. I tried to plead. I offered all we have, but I could not offer what we did not have to give.
Luci, I know that you said to me that we are powerless. But, my love, I wished a thousand times over in the long night before they came for me, after speaking with the King, that your arms would hold me. I wished that your wisdom was in my ears, not in the stars above my head where I sought to find you. I had to use the only power I had, Luci, or you would have been right, we would have been powerless. Forgive me, my love, for being the instigator of this uprising, but I had no choices left. Please forgive me for putting your sons into danger. They are men, my Luci, and they have made me so proud of them in these last weeks. You have borne me fine sons. I could not have wanted for more.
I have a task for you that does not please me well to ask, but ask I must. You must take my grandfather’s crown to the smith and you must have it beaten to fit our son Meurig. There is no time to fashion a new one. This needs to be done soon as we do not know what confronts us now. Make him ready to take it upon himself to bear the legacy that is his. His youth worries me so but he is another like our Griffith and will not flinch at his task despite his tender years.
My love, I yearn to be with you again, to be in your arms, to curl into your very being. You are my haven, where I can bare my soul. You strengthen me with your wisdom and with your comfort. My love, I am lost without you.
Remember, my Luci, I do what I have to do. Please tell me in your mind that you know I have not changed and I will hear it wherever I am. What I do hurts me. It hurts my people. But I do what I must. I was summoned to Court at Lincoln to stand trial and if I had been taken then they would have raised the taxes even more and that would have starved my people to a slow, lingering death, so I had to fight back, and I knew that fighting swiftly was the only option.
We started out from Rhodri's castle within one day of reaching there and emissaries have been sent to my brothers and cousins, the Lords of Afan, to protect you if the need arises. Be safe for me, my love, and look to our children if you can, for they must carry on if I fail. I see no way out for me now, my Luci. What I have done has sealed my fate but perhaps it will release my people and some of them will live on through what we do.
My tears fall freely and I know in my heart that what I do is wrong, but we have been wronged and every town we visit sees the Normans flee for their lives. Our numbers are in the thousands now, and they grow every day. I am proud of my people, Luci, and I shall protect them with my life as long as it is granted to me. The tax collectors are disappearing into the dust from where they came, at my bloodied hands. I reach out these hands to you now for the only salvation that I can seek, for you to kiss them for me, for you to shush me and tell me that your love still touches me. Tell me you do not fear my bloody hands, wash them for me, place your lips to them and give me strength to carry on, my love. Your counsel is sorely missed, your heart, your beauty and your strength. You are all that I have in my heart as I write to you, you fill my very being as my tears fall for you and I wipe them away with my hands of destruction. Pray for me, my love, make ready and if I do not get to you before the end then please, I beg you, willingly take my soul into yours, for it has no other use.