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Part 10

Llewelyn Bren led his men to attack Caerphilly Castle in the second attack of the day. They pounded on the door until it was breached then flooded through the gaping hole, to be met by the bodyguard and death. They fought hand to hand, trying again and again to gain a foothold, only to be beaten back by the strength of the bodyguard and soldiers inside the castle’s outer gate.

Griffith fought alongside Ewan, as did John. Rhys was seen burying his axe into the head of a Norman, cutting right through his helmet. Llewelyn looked to his sons and protected them with his life as the murderous screams rose through the battlements of the castle and more and more soldiers moved to take the place of those that they felled. They were trapped in a narrow space and as they pushed forward so they were repelled again and again.

Llewelyn saw an opening and made for it, with Rhys close behind him. The bodies lay scattered beneath their feet as they inched forward along the wall of the fortress and behind the advancing guard. Weapons in hand, they advanced slowly as they were confronted with dozens of armed Normans. Rhys let out a battle cry as he lunged forward and Llewelyn buried his sword in the sides of two Normans.
Ewan threw himself into the fray behind them. The men following Ewan held fast as they inched forward, closer to the inner gate. Llewelyn saw in front of him William Berkerolles, who he had sat and dined with together with their wives in better times.

‘Llewelyn,’ Berkerolles whispered between his teeth, ‘you know me well.’

Llewelyn dropped his guard as thoughts of Luci invaded his mind, thus faltering in his deed. He turned from Berkerolles as a soldier moved in on him from his left side, causing him to lose sight of his quarry, and he heard Ewan gasp at his side.

Llewelyn turned his body swiftly as he sunk his sword through the neck of the soldier in front of him. The soldier fell on top of the struggling Ewan, blood pouring from his neck. Llewelyn withdrew his sword and the remainder of the guard made for the safety of the inner gate.

The narrow, high-walled passageway was filled no longer with the clash of steel but only with the pain of the dying. Llewelyn dropped to his knees and held Ewan in his arms. His pale lips, with the blood of the Norman running over them, sang a faint lilting song as he left the battle, left his crwth and left the sobbing Griffith standing there looking down with his brother John’s arms around him.

Griffith screamed as he lunged his sword into every Norman body at his feet. He stamped on them and he cursed them until his father and Rhys dragged him away, away from the twisted face of his beloved friend as he lay there, even his body irretrievable to them now.

The Welshmen rained arrows to the battlements. They threw stones, shouted foreign-tongued obscenities and ranted at the might of this impenetrable fortress as they ran from the walls to a safe distance before falling to the ground exhausted. They had left hundreds of their valiant comrades dead at the walls of the castle and in the passageway between the massive gates. But Griffith, in his grief, saw just one face before his eyes, with Ewan’s smiling, singing voice resounding in his ears, leaving a void in his heart that would never be bridged.

He buried his face in his hands and as his brother John cried for him, he cried for all that they had lost, he cried for his mother and he cried to his God to take his friend into His heart and look after him there until he should find him again.

Humphrey de Bohun rode at the head of his army from Brecon over the mountains and valleys, steadily making his way to Caerphilly as William De Montague marched towards the same goal from Cardiff.

They marched strategically with heavy weapons and armaments to relieve the castle and those trapped inside. They had no fear of the castle being breached but rode to rout the army of Llewelyn Bren and to put the Welsh back where they belonged, in the hills where they could do no further harm.

These Welsh had roamed out of the hills and they had hurt the Norman supremacy. They had done what they thought no Welshman would do again. This man had to be stopped, and as they rode steadily and surely towards Caerphilly, Robert led Luci and Eleri around them to freedom and home.

Eleri was as distraught as Luci. Robert wished to get them back safe and return to his countrymen as he knew they were in sore need of every man now.

They rode in silence, heads bowed into the wind and rain that seemed to penetrate to their souls. The light that Luci had found with her husband was now but a flickering, cold candle flame in her heart. She thought of him as she rode, as did Eleri of her Rhys.

They exchanged looks that needed no words as they rode further and further away from the carnage that they knew in their hearts was behind them. Every step was wrought from their bodies like flesh being stripped from their bones. They were so cold. There was nothing to warm them now. They were so weary with nothing to instil hope in them, yet hoping beyond hope that their men would survive to fight again, to love again and to live on with them in their simple way.

God! Luci screamed silently to the wind. Why did you curse us with these cold foreigners? What did we do wrong?

Luci’s horse followed blindly those in front, as there was no guidance from Luci sitting atop him. She was there in body alone as each weary mile took them closer to home. They reached the Castle of Afan where Angharad rushed to meet them and Luci fell into her arms for the comfort that she sought from her kinswoman.

‘I am so sorry to bring you bad news, Angharad,’ she spoke. ‘But we skirted the army making its way to Llewelyn, Rhodri and their men. I do not know what to expect, I only know that it will be over soon and we shall know their fate.’  

Angharad ushered them to the great hall where they sat in front of a roaring fire and warmed their tired bodies. She had hot mead and meat brought to them.

‘You must eat, Luci,’ Eleri spoke softly as Luci sat staring into the flames. ‘You will need your strength for the rest of the ride.’

Luci looked up at Eleri with her pained eyes reflecting all that Eleri felt, showing her bare hurt to her friend whose eyes reflected it back tenfold. Eleri sat beside her Mistress, tempting her to eat, whispering words of encouragement, telling her once again of the good times. She reminded her of her children and of their fate, should she continue to pine away and Llewelyn were to return victorious.

‘You must be there for him, Luci. I shall be there for my Rhys when he returns. I shall be waiting with hope in my heart, and you should not lose yours for Llewelyn. I know that if he survives then my Rhys will bring him home to us. I have faith, Luci, and so should you.’

The horseman reached Llewelyn.
‘What of Luci and Eleri?’ Llewelyn spoke upon seeing the man’s face. ‘Tell me what has happened.’

‘My Lord, they should be nearly home now,’ the rider replied. ‘I left them safe. My Lord, there is an army approaching right behind me. The Norman armies are coming. They are thousands strong.’

Rhys, Llewelyn, Rhodri, Griffith and John rode through the army, telling them to make ready the wounded to flee for the hills. They carried their brothers, their uncles and their sons on hewn sleds carried behind the horses as they ran and dragged themselves alongside. Some would not make it home, but they could not be left to die alone. Every last man knew they had but little time and as the army of Llewelyn Bren turned its back on Caerphilly Castle, so the armies of Humphrey de Bohun and William de Montague sat astride the mountains to the east and west of them.

Down the river the remains of the army of Llewelyn Bren rode, ran, walked and stumbled. They had to try to out-run them. Ewan’s horse was used to carry the dead and dying but his crwth lay against Griffith’s thigh as he rode, every touch bringing hate and fear to his heart.

Once in the valleys their task would be easier but here in the open they had to flee for their lives. As the men died so their bodies were left behind, laid out neatly, their eyes closed with a hasty prayer and song for each one.

They fled with the Norman armies hard on their trail. They could not rest. There was no stopping place now for feasting, no time to kill game and eat as they fled through valleys and passes and climbed their mountaintops until they reached the beautiful Neath valley, with its tinkling waterfalls and haunts of pools and dingles, a magical place with some measure of cover for the army of Llewelyn Bren.

They travelled up and up the valley with the Normans and their mercenary armies behind them, unrelenting. It broke the heart of Llewelyn to know that should they battle, it would be brother against brother as Norman coin was tempting blood money to his countrymen when they were in need. They had met it before. They had paid the Welsh bowmen to wear the colours of the Norman Lords. They had subdued the Scots with his countrymen, they had taken them to Ireland, to crusades in foreign lands, where the tales of their bravery were legendary. They had fought in France with valour, known for their skills with the long bow and the short Welshman’s bow that was so easy to carry. They had fought for the Normans and were paid well, but why did they have to take what they did not have? We have given our all, Llewelyn thought, yet deep in his heart he knew that they were bleeding his country dry. He had tried the only ways open to him and now the Normans were moving closer to the remains of his army and he could see no escape.

On they moved, slower with every mile as wounded dropped to their knees and were helped astride horses whose bellies and flanks were stained red with the warm blood of those brave men they had laid out under trees and in shallow graves.

No time to bury our dead with honour, John thought as they laid out one after another. But they will live on in our country for as long as I have breath in my body, however long it is granted to me.

Griffith’s white face followed those of Rhodri and Rhys, the strain showing on every man’s face now. Raw emotion laid bare at every glance from one to another. The time for words was past. There was nothing left to say, just silent support flowing from one to another when they thought they could walk no more.

They reached Pontneathvaughan just before the blackness and cold hit them and Llewelyn ordered that fires should be lit.

‘We cannot hide anymore!’ he shouted to his men. ‘Rest and eat whatever you can find.’

Rhys posted sentries. Men sat atop hillsides, watching but knowing that the Norman armies had to rest also. They would not attack at night in these hills.

They lit huge fires, where they sat silently in the invading night until someone started to hum in his grief. The voices joined slowly, and the ballads, sweet as the voices, all joined in to lift their spirits beyond anything earthly with the voices of all keys joined together in one mass for the dead and the dying.

They sang for the hope that was instilled in their breasts even in the face of the doorway to hell. They sang until the forest around them reverberated with thousands of voices echoing through the valley. People came to them with food that they could find. Women and children came to cry with them and to look for sons and brothers that had ridden with Llewelyn Bren. The hills were alive with the songs of the people that had lived on this patch of earth as long as anyone knew. This was their land and they had fought to keep it. Who could help them now? Their wives, their sweethearts, their mothers and daughters came from the valley around them. They would help them, they would carry them home.

The tears rose in Griffith’s throat and threatened to choke him as he sang until his lungs almost burst. He sang for his friend Ewan. He heard his voice among the thousands. He reached out to him and watched his smiling face among the stars, as he sang with the tears streaming down his face, as he heard Ewan chuckle and say to him, ‘Harem? Now that would be something, eh? You watch them girls chase us when we get home, Griffith boy!’

‘We will all be with you soon, Ewan,’ he called above the thousands of voices. ‘You will never be lonely then. We shall find that harem in the sky, Ewan boy! Yes we will!’

They set out at first light, moving at a steady pace. The badly injured were left behind, with the people of the Neath valley to tend to their needs. They would be carried to the abbey where the monks would care for them and see to their souls.

They moved forward now, up towards the mountains looming above them. Deeper into the heartlands they travelled, up over the mountain at Coelbren, where they looked back to see the advancing Normans following them, never stopping. All day they travelled up into the mountains until night was falling again.

Llewelyn ordered that they should stop at Ystradfellte. They camped there knowing that they could not go much further, knowing that they were getting trapped tighter and closer every day. There is only so much one man can do in one day, so camp they had to.

Llewelyn sat close to the fire, his frowning face red in the glow of the flames as he spoke to the group around him.

‘They want me. They would never have travelled this far into the heartlands otherwise.’

Rhys was angry as he spoke clearly to Llewelyn, ‘My Lord, we who follow you will follow you to the end. We are not here to sacrifice one man. We are here as a people. Even in this almighty mess we have you to thank for ridding us of the tax collectors, who threatened to kill us anyway, but with a longer, more lingering death.

We shall stand and fight. We shall not run anymore!’

‘We have the advantage in our mountains,’ Rhodri spoke up, deep in thought at their side. ‘We shall plan through this night and we shall trap them here in this valley.’

‘No,’ Llewelyn replied calmly. ‘We shall fight no more. I have done what I set out to do. The Normans have fled my lands and that is enough. I want no more bloodshed on my hands in this lifetime. The killing is over, we have lost too much already. There are families with no head and no sons to help their mothers. I cannot sacrifice any more of my people, Rhodri. The men we have must return to their families for them to survive now. I hope and pray that they can and that some good will come from this.’

Griffith and John turned simultaneously to their father as they spoke of their feelings in this time, ‘You have us to fight for you, father.’ They looked at their father then, this man that had played with them, taught them to read, taught them to hunt, fed them, and they knew that he could not take any more. They were so tired, they were so hungry, and Llewelyn had hardly eaten in the times when they had feasted.
They watched his mind struggle with his conscience. They watched the man they loved above any other man fight for his sanity in the face of tomorrow and the demons of yesterday that would haunt him always.

John wished that their mother was here now and knew that as he wished so his father wished a thousand fold. In our time of need he realized that we all need a woman’s breast to cry on, to pour out our suffering to, for it is only a woman who can feel the soul of a Welshman, and his father’s soul was with his Luci. He knew in that instant he longed for a woman of his own to turn to, to run to, one who would take him and love him as his mammy had, and for that he would protect her with his life. Yes, John was a man

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