All day the Welshmen had been busy. They had honed arrows in their thousands, they had repaired bows and sharpened knives, swords and anything else that they carried as weapons of war. They practised their arts on the trees and wildlife of the forest. The arrows whistled through the air as the clash of cold steel rang through hills and valleys. They killed big game and they lit fires to cook their feast that night. There was no need to hide now. The Normans knew they were there, overlooking their castle.
Llewelyn stood, pensively looking down over the huge fortress that had destroyed his grandfather. He wondered about the path he had taken to get here, for now they were holding nigh on fifteen thousand men at the gates of the very same castle they had walked away from twenty years before, swearing never to set foot near again. Since then Llewelyn thought things had not improved. It seemed to him that every piece of land these cold blooded invaders were given only made them want more. Is there to be no satisfaction in their women and children and in the day that they live? Llewelyn thought, troubled, knowing that every day of his life was spent thankful for what he had, never wanting more. How do their minds work?
Llewelyn stood up straight and tried to imagine how these people thought. He looked up the valley, trying so hard to see what drove these people so he would know how to fight them. For Llewelyn Bren knew not, even as he stood on that mountain, if what he did was the right thing for his people. He only did what he had to do to try to save them. He did not know even why he was here, he just knew in his heart that something had drawn him here, for good or no, he knew that the spilling of blood had not ended yet. The final nail would not be driven into the Norman coffin in his lands until Caerphilly Castle spewed forth its Norman heart into the hands of those who had fought for so long for that which was theirs, the land that gave them life, that was theirs by birth, and the hiraeth that was in their souls.
Llewelyn pushed from his restless mind all feelings like these, knowing that the battle on the morrow would decide one way or another the route he must choose next, or if he would have any choices left to make. In Rhys he had a companion unparalleled for his battle strategy, and it was to him he went now to gather together their commanders from out of the woods and valleys and around the tinkling pools of this glorious land, to attend their counsel of war before the feasting began.
Luci and Eleri rode with the emissary through the flat bed of the river, stopping to refresh themselves, to wash their faces in the cool, clear water as their horses drank their fill. They led them through the water to the other side, where they sat on the bank, tired but elated at being so close to their countrymen, to their men and to their goal.
Eleri smiled at Luci as she brushed her hair for her. The emissary watched enthralled. They looked so radiant, so happy and yet they had ridden like men for three days with him, never faltering, ready to go when he said, ready to stop when he said. He thought deep and long of these women. He knew he could trust them with his life. Is it only our women who can ride like this? he pondered, they look so soft and beautiful, yet they are built from the same steel as those I fight alongside. Not once has a complaint left their lips, not once have they questioned my judgement.
Luci looked up into his face and silently thanked him and his heart missed a beat as he thought of the pleasures of a woman like this, how she rode to her husband with no thought for her own safety. Yes, we Welshmen have something that is more than land ever could be, something more than possession, more than wealth. We have women without petty pretensions. We have women who could wear the band of gold as well as their men could. We have women who would smile as they defended their rights. They would ride into the deepest heart of the Norman strongholds, alone if need be, as they would have done now, were I not here.
Eleri lay on the bank as Luci smoothed her hair with the herbs they had gathered from the riverbanks and carried in their bundles ready to reach their husbands. This enforced stop was more than they could bear, but with the steep climb awaiting them they had to rest or they would lose their mounts. So they lay there and thought of what they would find, and although they knew that anger would be the first reaction they both knew that they would be in their husbands’ arms without too many harsh words.
They had bathed in a little pool and they had made themselves ready to meet their loves. They waited for the emissary’s word to remount and then the last lap of their journey would be completed. They sat astride their mounts, pulling on the reins to guide them to the path leading up the steep slope. The horses picked their way gingerly, carrying the trio up and up from the wide valley floor into the mountain forests, around huge oaks and sycamores. They were feeling their way slowly, but always climbing, always heading up to the summit and to the sun.
The council of war was over. The men were hungry. They salivated as they smelled the roasting beasts on the huge fires. They warmed themselves and sat on their haunches and whittled at wood, hummed tunes and made laughter at the thought of the feast that they would have this night. They lay and relaxed but every last man had in his heart what they would face the morrow, what they would do and what the outcome would be. They only knew that this was their fate. They would fight like demons for their chance, even for a slight one. The sun was going down slowly and that half light invaded the trees.
The lookout suddenly shouted, ‘Riders approaching!’
Llewelyn ran to the ridge behind them and peered into the trees, with Rhys not long behind him. The bowmen primed their bows and took up their positions as the emissary rode out from the trees.
‘Hold there, we are coming in!’ he shouted.
The camp fell silent as behind the emissary rode Luci and Eleri, their hair flying, the scent of the breeze coming with them as the emissary dismounted before his Lord.
The smile on Luci’s face died at the sight of her gaunt husband. She slid down from her horse, walked to him saying nothing, and touched his face lightly as she watched the tears well up in his eyes at the sight of her.
Rhys ran past her and pulled his Eleri down from her horse into his arms. There were no harsh words, just pure bubbling emotion, just heart wrenching silence from the hills as the men of Llewelyn’s army looked on in wonder and awe at the sight of their countrywomen riding in to their men.
‘Oh, Luci, why?’ Llewelyn asked as he paced among the trees, looking down at her sitting on the blanket that had been his only cover for many a long night.
‘My love,’ Luci spoke with heartfelt sadness, ‘you know I had to come. I tried to write but could not tell you in words what I needed to. I needed to see your face, my husband. Don’t be angry, and do not waste this time we have, for I shall ride before you go into battle. But do not forget also, My Lord, that my sons are here. I had a right to see them and they had a need to see me, too. I have given them news from their siblings and they are heartened to see me, as you well know, for is John not yet a man?
Llewelyn looked into Luci’s eyes as he sat beside her, as he took her into his arms, and she whispered to him, ‘My Lord, I have come to make you strong, not to weaken you. I have come to you, for it is my place to do so. I needed you so much and could not stay away. Please put aside your anger, for I shall not leave until you ride in the morning sun. Then I shall turn from you, then I will ride home to care for those I must, for our children and our people. But tonight is for my sons, who I have not seen for so long, and for My Lord to gain the strength he needs to go into battle for us all.’
‘My wonderful Luci,’ Llewelyn spoke gently, ‘I never thought to set eyes on your beauty again. You know that, do you not?’
‘Yes, My Lord,’ Luci answered, smiling. ‘That is why I came.’
Luci felt her husband’s hands touch her softly. Her body screamed out at her as visions of other hands touching her flew into her mind. She tried and tried to clear them from her as she kissed his neck, as her hands ran over his lean body. She wanted to be clean for him. Eleri! her mind cried, help me, help me!
Llewelyn felt her stiffen at his touch. He wondered, he thought, he turned to her and kissed her lips sweetly as he whispered to her, ‘My darling, to have you here is enough. You are tired. I am weary and must save my strength for the morrow.’
Luci let the tears fall. She had failed her Llewelyn. She would never be able to love him again. Better she was dead than to let him think of her as not wanting him.
Llewelyn lay beside her on his elbow. He kissed her, he held her hand and he looked deep into her eyes in the moonlight filtering through the trees.
She reached up to his face then and ran her fingers over his lips, pushed them into his mouth, where they lingered lazily as he sucked on each one gently in turn. He ran his hands over her belly and touched her heart in so many places as she watched him, as he warmed her soul, as he made her breath float on the cold night air. She watched him drinking in every small feature of the face that she loved beyond all else.
Luci felt her soul reach out to his as she closed her eyes. She closed her mind to everything but the feelings invading her body now, and she watched his hands behind her closed lids, knowing that only he could touch her like this. No man other than her Llewelyn could raise her to these heights, with his thoughts entwined with hers above their bodies. The fears dispelled on the mist and vapour that escaped their bodies. As he undid the bands encircling her waist she felt the cool air on her nakedness. She flew up and over the trees in his arms, and her soul melted into his. She reached out for him, cleansed and whole again.
He had lain thus for so long, adoring her, until in her mind she knew that what she had felt deep inside was so unimportant now. She would love him, she would give him her heart and soul to take with him on the morrow, for her cleansing was complete. He had taken her back into his heart. He had shown her that she was his, that no Norman defiler could ever take away what they had. Theirs was the purest love known to man. The meeting of their souls and bodies in a quiet forest, on the earth from whence they came and to where they would return.
Llewelyn took his wife as she melted into him and he into her. As she arched her back the demons flew. He watched them pass and disappear as he made sweet, beautiful love to the woman who was born his, who he would love beyond the grave into eternity. His Luci, his love, his life. As he flooded into her body he cried on her shoulders, on her breasts, on her belly, for the love that she had brought to him in his hour of need. Who else could love him this way? Only his Luci, his wife