I pray for the end, my love, yet I know that this is but the beginning.
Your loving husband,
The great hall was bustling with the preparation for the feast, the huge spit over the fire being turned by strong young men as women rushed in and out, checking and making sure that the fire was kept burning to cook the beast in time. The kitchens were rushed and heated as cheeses were brought out and ale was brought in huge quantities, with mead and anything that they could lay hands on. The great platters were made ready to hold the hot dripping meat that was their sustenance. The talk and chatter was mixed in its content. The young were eager to prove themselves. Sadness glistened in the eyes of those who had lost loved ones in the last great war of Llewelyn’s father, and in those who had resigned to the facts of their lives. Then there were the deep rooted, who knew that when needed they would fight. They would always be ready. They would heal their wounds and bury their dead, for they knew that there was no other way now.
Men had ridden from the castle within an hour of the emissary’s arrival, out to farms and castles that they could reach within hours, from where more riders would be sent out with the news.
The Bard Teuli Angharad arrived at the castle from a nearby farm, accompanied by her family. The harps were at the ready and skins were thrown down for seating as the great hall came alive.
Luci sat with Eleri at her side close to the window. Twenty armed men and the emissary stood and sat with them in an adjoining anteroom, busy with a scribe. They talked in earnest as Luci asked the emissary how far he had travelled.
‘I have come from the border, My Lady,’ he answered.
‘Then you have done well,’ Luci said. ‘Tell me, how did the people you met on the way react to the news?’
‘My Lady, they are glad to have something to fight for. For too long now they have not had enough food, and are worrying endlessly about the taxes that are insurmountable to them. They have no other redress, My Lady, only what we give them and they are eager to follow Llewelyn as they know that this is their last chance. I have met nothing but cheer and optimism for the future that has been missing for the last generation. They arm themselves, they follow, and you only have to call and they are there. Many are waiting for Llewelyn to get closer to them to join him and they will fight with their all, for they would rather die heroes than watch their families suffer.’
‘We have no problems then,’ Luci said wryly.
‘Other than the Norman Lords that own us.’
Her head lifted as she said to the gathered assembly,
‘We must make plans. Everything must be ready for us to ride and join him, but we must leave nothing open for them to sneak in and destroy. We must arm our castles and dwelling houses as well as ride to vanquish the Normans.’
‘My Lady,’ the emissary spoke gently, ‘My Lord pleads that you do not join him. He sends word that the women and children are to be protected and taken into the heartlands. He wants no more bloodshed on his hands than what is essential to beat the Norman taxes.’
Luci’s eyes flashed as she looked around the hall at the quiet faces surrounding her, knowing in this minute that she must be careful, knowing that she was the wife of the man who led these people and her reply could make or break him in their eyes. Her very being cried out to fight, to rant and rave at these men surrounding her, that vengeance for the wrongs committed to their Lord’s wife was hers and that she would ride into battle unafraid of any foe that reared its head before her.
She felt the sword in her heart and also the bow. The arrows that hit each Norman were but sweet kisses to her soul. She fought with her feelings for moments that felt like an eternity, and then she was aware of Eleri watching her. She felt her serious eyes look upon her, and in that second she knew that her feelings of wanting to wreak vengeance on every Norman she saw, and having an excuse to do it, would destroy not only her but her family and friends also. She felt the pain well up in her as she looked up into the faces around her.
‘My husband’s words are wise. I shall not take them lightly and if we must flee to the mountains then we shall go, for that is his wish.’
A murmur rang around the room as men nodded to one another their approval.
They sat for more than an hour, drawing up plans. They had to determine how many would be stationed at each castle, how many would go to Llewelyn, when they were to leave and how they would arm themselves.
Luci threw open the armoury to the men present and asked only that they armed well the men left to guard her home. Swords and knives, held in the armoury of the castle, were distributed to the men present and each was given orders to go to a castle nearby and arm men from their armouries. They were ordered to mount them well and ride to join Llewelyn as soon as possible.
The emissary drew out a plan of where the army was moving and what their ultimate goals were. They deliberated, they planned, and they took with them the blessings of Lady Luci, wife of Lord Llewelyn, in their hearts, for they were her soldiers and they were Llewelyn’s men, and if that meant death then so be it.
The castle sang that night. Beautiful lilting voices reached the high curved wooden ceiling and reverberated amongst the mead and meat that was their fill. The Bard Teuli performed for them, her voice piercing their souls and beyond with its purity as she sang to the sound of their beloved harp. The bards sang of the triumphs and heartaches of their past. They recorded the hopes of the future, and the hiraeth flooded through every Welsh breast, where, on nights like these, the harps were tinkling and singing in full accord.
Luci and Eleri brought the younger children in for a little while and then packed them off unwillingly to their bedchambers, where they shared their sleeping with friends and cousins here for the occasion. Small voices in the night, drifting with the sounds of the revelry in their home until they fell to sleep, warm and well fed.
The hall emptied slowly, leaving the young to carry on into the dying embers of the night. Many of them would ride in the morning light, but tonight they would sing to their hearts’ content, arms linked, voices at full pitch, the harmony in them flooding to feed them in their hour of need, which each knew would be with them very soon.
The girls linked their arms with the young men in song as they enjoyed hours that they knew many would not see again. The night was for rejoicing. The day was for riding into the unknown, to fight for times like these and to pray that these times would come again soon.
Llewelyn and his army stood on the hilltop above the town of Neath as the sun was setting behind Gwraig Gladys and March Hywel mountain on the northwest of the magnificent valley. They looked down into the town with its boats navigating the river. They looked across the valley of rushing streams and waterfalls far below them, across to the abbey, majestic in its isolation, where the river meandered past and the fields surrounding it maintained its richness and fertility.
Beasts grazed in the invading rain. Many of the army had little protection from this rain as it hit their faces and trickled down their necks. Many of them felt desolate, but they knew that their way was mapped out for them and there was no going back.
The castle stood on the riverbank and Llewelyn knew that this was one place where their task would not be easy, as there were many Normans guarding this town. This town had had its castle burned to the ground many times. They had no intention of burning the castle this time, though, yet they needed to gain access to the tax collector, as they had done many times now in the Norman strongholds across their lands.
The army retreated and camped behind the mountain, hidden from view. Llewelyn and a dozen Welshmen stood on the crest of the mountain and planned their route carefully. The trees that cloaked their beautiful land provided all the cover they needed.
It was decided that they would move their ten thousand men down onto the slopes amongst the trees, with the cover of the huge oaks, sycamores and beech giving them all that they needed for the surprise attack.
Their strategy planned, Llewelyn and his group of leaders, which included his two sons, Rhys and Ewan, amongst other serious faces, walked back to the camping army. There would be no fires this night as they needed the surprise to accomplish their task well. The mountain was not the best place to spend a wet night but they had to be close to get to the town by daybreak.
They huddled in groups under the trees. Those with horses settled their beasts down for the night. They talked quietly, these men, who wished with all their hearts and soul that they were home with their families this night. They wanted to be home with their women and children as they fingered mementoes from out of their bundles, smiling and asking silently for the strength to carry on until the deeds were done. Each prayed for the rights that had been taken away from them, to live as they always had, free and unchained.
It was pitch black with no sign of morning when they were roused. Those that had slept, that is. They made ready their horses in the silence that they held for a while.
Llewelyn moved among the men, this calm, gentle man who had killed with his bare hands those who threatened his people. He wore the band of gold, as did his two sons, in readiness for their attack. They had worn their bands in every place they had visited and the sight heartened their followers who had no qualms about following where they led.
Sat on his haunches, Llewelyn spoke to them one group at a time, as did his henchmen. They walked through the warriors, explaining the strategy that they had worked out.
Two men were left on the steep hillside as sentries, one leaning against a tree, cleaning his teeth with a hazel twig ripped from branches for the purpose, and the other fashioning a whistle from a branch, cutting into it with a sharp little knife, stripping the bark from it and moving his hands over the smooth wood. He would put it to his lips and make sweet music, as every Welshman did. Making music from wood and from the depths of their being was part of their heritage. It was in their very soul.
They walked through the deep forest. Those that had horses led them down. Those without clambered ahead. They passed little tinkling streams where they drank of the pure water and splashed their faces to make them awake. They walked downhill for two hours before reaching the base of the valley, and they could just make out the outline of the castle in the eerie light of that time before the sunrise.
Llewelyn mounted at the head of his army. He rode up and down the front line with his sons, the bands of gold warm in the drizzle, shining around their heads like halos of light, lifting the hearts of all these men who would follow where he led. The army advanced, past the mill on the outskirts, over flat fields, sleepy hamlets and across to the walled town of the Normans. This was the town that no Welshman could enter to trade, unless invited by the Normans for some purpose that they required. The town where the mayor, the tax collector, grew fat on his blood money. He would no longer be able to after this day.
As the sun rose and light invaded through the drizzle, the army had completely surrounded the town, ten thousand men fighting to survive, as they had done since the invaders came.
The archers stood in the inner circle, twenty deep, while the soldiers on horseback stood behind. Every Welshman in the army possessed his bow and enough arrows to kill a dozen Normans. Many of them had travelled to foreign lands with the Norman Lords, where they were feared as the best bowmen in the world. Well, now their bows were ready to be used for their own ends, and they were no longer in the pay of the Norman Lords. They wore no coats of the colours of the Normans. They were plain men with a mission in their souls, with a need to protect and feed their women, children and old. That was enough for the spilling of their own blood.
They started to sing as they approached the town wall that loomed over them, with the castle inside standing mighty, the Norman soldiers on the battlements aiming their bows down into their midst. They sang haunting welsh melodies, songs of battle. And they never stopped moving closer to strangle the might of the Norman stronghold in their sheer numbers, to leave the tax collector no way out but to die as Llewelyn had decreed.
Failure was not an option to these men, they had a mission and it would be completed.
Llewelyn, his sons and other riders rode to the gate of the town and demanded the tax collector be brought forward. They shouted to the men peering over the battlements that ran around the town as the sun rose in all its glory behind them, breaking through the clouds and lighting the three bands of gold to shimmering red heat.
More men and soldiers rushed to the narrow battlements as they looked down on this mighty army. Rhys sat on his horse, bow aimed up to the battlements as Llewelyn spoke to the men atop him.
They threatened, they offered safe passage to all those who wished to leave, and they asked only for one man.
‘Offer him up and you shall live,’ Llewelyn shouted. ‘Deny him and you will die.’ His soft voice bore the authority that made the difference to the day, lifting up to the battlements as he sat there flanked closely by men who would take the arrows in front of him if they let fly. His chain mail glinted in the morning sun as did the mail of all those who stood close to the castle wall, surrounded by a sea of primed bows.
Llewelyn shouted to them, ‘We shall move back a distance and give you two hours to deliver to us the tax collector. It is your choice. One man or many, a town or no town, our firebrands are ready. There is no escape for you now, other than to give us what we ask.’
They moved back then out of reach of the Norman arrows, knowing that there were not enough men in the town to fight an army of their sheer numbers. They waited at a distance for deliverance of the tax collector that would come soon. They waited for an hour and the gates opened and a company of Normans on horseback rode out a short distance from the cover of the armed battlements.
Rhys broke from the ranks together with two men armed well. They rode a distance from their army and sat waiting.
The Normans sent out three men and Rhys and his band rode to meet them. Their horses pawed the ground as they met, reins held in hard as they spoke, watched by the Welsh army and every man on the battlements.
Minutes that seemed like hours passed before Rhys reeled his horse around expertly and rode at a gallop back with his escort to Llewelyn and his army, silent now, watching and waiting.
‘My Lord,’ Rhys spoke, ‘they say that the tax collector has left for Swansea.’
A chuckle arose from the men around as Llewelyn smiled and answered, ‘Strange how they have always just left, Rhys!’
‘They also want to speak to you, My Lord, which I advise against. They will try to kill you in the hope of weakening the army, as you well know.’
‘Yes, Rhys,’ Llewelyn said. ‘I know I must protect myself for the purpose that is mine, but I shall ride to meet them now with your assistance, for without it I am only half a man.’
Rhys held out his hand and placed it on his friend’s shoulder.
‘My Lord, at this time I am nothing without you, as would say every one of these men that follow you.’
Llewelyn, Rhys and Ewan rode out again to the spot where the Normans waited, and Llewelyn offered his ultimatum:
‘You have little time left to deliver the tax collector.’
He spoke to the man he faced, eyes looking into eyes, horses rearing. ‘My patience nor that of my men will allow us to wait longer. Deliver him to us now and we shall leave as quietly as we came. Do not and we shall stay and many will die this day, when we have come for only one man. Is his importance more to you than the safety of all your people? We shall deal with him swiftly, but we cannot leave until this task is done.’
‘You know that your time shall not last,’ the Norman spoke. ‘There are armies on their way right now to quash this beggar’s army that you have.’
Llewelyn replied sternly, ‘You see before you a man who knows what he does. Your words are wasted. I know too well what will be the outcome for me, but until that day I shall carry out that which is the only option left to me. My patience is running out, you have one hour left. I promise you that these threats are not idle. What have we to lose? You will be given free passage and my word that no one else will be harmed if you give us the one man we ask for.’
The fury on the face of the Norman was plain to see as he spat out at Llewelyn,
‘You shall have him! But may you burn in hell for what you do, Llewelyn Bren! For you seek to weaken the might of my people, who will rise up and choke you and your people again and again!’
‘When they do,’ Llewelyn replied softly and menacingly, ‘we shall dispose of more of you, and then more again, until our lands are free of the curse that you bring. These are our lands, not yours. You steal and pillage that which is ours, and we may lose, we may be beaten, but we shall rise up again and again until my people are free. We slumber and wait, do not forget, and we have the blood of our fathers and sons in us, and we will have your tax collector within the hour or we attack. You have no way out, so do your duty and protect your people now. I shall wait no longer.’
Llewelyn reeled around and rode furiously back to his lines of archers, Rhys and Ewan followed in his tracks.
The tax collector was brought out under guard and a dozen men rode to collect him. They took his bridle and led his horse to Llewelyn, who faced him and looked deep into his eyes.
‘May my gods forgive me,’ he spoke almost silently.
Rhys tied the man’s hands behind his back, then the noose was placed around his neck by Griffith and a rag forced into his open, wailing mouth. The army moved back as Llewelyn stood before him. The tree from which he would hang stood alone in the open field, as if there only for this purpose.
Llewelyn did what he made himself do time and time again. He slapped the horse from under this human being and watched him hang. He whispered into the wind to halt the tears that flowed in his heart. He watched the life drain from this well-fed man as all around watched silently. He saw the man die before his eyes at his hands. Forgive me, my people, and forgive me, my Luci, my love, for I know what I do, and what I do I must.
They cut down the man and left his body under the tree, and then they rode with the wind, the footmen following, until they reached the safety of the forest again, all ten thousand men one step closer to their goal and Llewelyn one step closer to what he saw as his inevitable end.