It took them three days to reach the river that they would ford to put themselves back on home ground and the earth that would heal them. The three boys were first across, followed by Rhys and Rhodri, their whoops of joy at reaching their homeland renting the air like warriors’ cries.
Luci’s face lifted to the sun as she felt the heat hitting her, welcoming her back. She sat straighter on her mount again now. Her back was strengthening daily. She felt hope come to her in little snatches and warmth seep into her bones again from her husband’s body as he lay with her in his arms at night as though she were his child. She looked on her homeland and knew that hope was in her breast still and she felt heartened for the first time in a long while. There was a future for her and she would find her children with Eleri still.
She turned to Llewelyn and her smile lifted his heart as he saw his Luci look into his soul again, a place where she had not dared to look for so long.
‘My husband,’ she spoke, ‘I would bathe in the river for I shall not enter my homeland unless fit to greet my family again.’
Llewelyn leaned over and kissed her lips, and he then ordered that they should go upriver until they found the pools and waterfalls where they could bathe themselves before riding into their heartlands, towards their home and freedom once again.
Llewelyn hoped in his heart that this would be the last time he would ever leave his home. He wanted to stay, he was tired of fighting, he wanted to watch his younger children grow up now. He wanted to teach them and to tell them tales of their older brothers’ deeds on the battle field and make them as strong as their brothers were. He felt the same hope rise in his breast as had Luci and he wished that this feeling would last the rest of his life.
Luci bathed in the sweet clean river water high up in the mountains, where they had ridden to find this pool of dreams that she lay in. She salved her body, felt herself cleanse in the running water that invaded every part of her being deep within her.
She dressed in clothes not to her liking on her fresh clean body, for she had no choice yet. When she reached home she would be able to change that too, and she would never again neglect her body, for that was her comfort, as she realised now, and it was that aspect of her captivity that had broken her, along with the loss of her children.
Rhys and Griffith dived from the rocks deep into sparkling, bottomless pools and John, together with Meurig, tickled the bellies of fat trout and salmon, feeling them leap into their strong hands as they threw them onto the banks, before roasting them on sticks over fires that they had lit for the night. They relished the taste of food that they had missed for so long. Luci ate hungrily for the first time since their captivity began, and heartened all who watched her smiles return with the succulent salmon between her teeth, warming her belly.
She loved with Llewelyn that night under the stars. She smiled at him, she worshipped his body and he cried with love for her and the rebirth of his Luci, who he knew would survive now and who would become stronger than ever again.
He caressed her under the stars. He lay over her, smiling down into her eyes that glistened in the moonlight as her teeth flashed white after she had ritually cleaned then with a hazel twig ripped from a young branch. He kissed her sweet lips, he loved her and she clung to him and whispered sweet words to him that salved his soul and made him whole again.
They made ready to leave and the horses were caught from the green swathes of grass, where they had munched freely throughout the night and early morning. They all mounted but Luci stayed them, moving among their horses, untying each bundle in turn, and as her sons lowered their heads to her she placed their crowns above their freshly washed hair and touched their lips softly.
She stood in front of her Llewelyn as he lowered his head to her and she placed his crown onto his head. He sat straight on his mount as his sons moved behind him to face their mother, ready for the off.
‘You left here heroes, my sons,’ Luci said, ‘and you return heroes. Wear your crowns with pride, for you are of the royal blood of Wales. One reason you have your freedom is because of your birth but never ever forget that the reason you still live is because of that same birth right. You are of royal blood, do not ever forget it, and as you ride home wear your badge of office with pride for it is yours to wear and can never be taken from you.’
Luci mounted then and took her position between the four golden crowns as they walked the horses, nostrils flaring in the early sun with the promise of a glorious day ahead, inwards into their heartlands and home once again, to their lives, to their children. And Rhys thought deep in his heart as he looked up at the blue sky above. Be safe, my Eleri, be mine and wait for me, my love. I am coming for you.
They did not have to wait long before seeing the devastation that had been wrought on their lands. People met them, talked to them of the times that they had been gone. Lands had been taken, people dispossessed of the little they had, and the news that Llewelyn and Rhys had dreaded to hear came to them like a lightening bolt from the blue sky above them.
The Despensers were in residence. They had taken the castle of Llewelyn. Luci was distraught. They rode like the wind to Brecon Castle and Humphrey de Bohun. Many people stopped them on the roads with their tales of the terrible times they lived in again. The King’s favourite had claimed the rightful lands that were theirs. Hugh the Younger, together with his father and his grandfather, Hugh the Elder, had taken all that they had.
As they rode they hoped and prayed that their families had escaped to safety and protection. Luci rode alongside her Llewelyn, face into the wind, her mind a hive of possibilities too harsh to bear thinking of, but still she could not stop them invading her soul. Her whole body ached with longing, with fear and with the need to ride and find them wherever they were.
They stopped only to rest the horses for the shortest time possible as they flew through their lands like devils on horseback. They did not stop to eat. They did nothing, only pray silently each one to anything and everything that would hear their prayers echoing on the wind and in the narrow valleys that they traversed.
They reached the high lands of Brecon and ascended the last mountain to the castle, standing stark against the streaked, blood red evening sky. The weary band rode across the drawbridge and hammered on the huge wooden doors as the sentries looked down on them from the battlements, shouting to open the doors to those below.
Humphrey de Bohun rushed out of the castle into the courtyard to greet them, his face seeking Luci among them to reassure her that her family were safe.
Llewelyn reached up and lifted the ashen faced Luci from her horse as de Bohun’s face told her all she needed to know.
‘My Lady, your children are safe here.’
She stood and looked straight into his eyes as he looked upon her shadow,
‘I owe you everything, My Lord, my life even, for I would not have survived should harm have come to them in my absence.’
De Bohun turned to the servant flanking him, putting Luci’s hand in hers.
‘Take My Lady to her family, immediately.’
Luci walked from the group silently on legs that felt as though they would not have carried a child. She climbed the stone steps into the shelter of the castle of Humphrey de Bohun, to her children, after nearly two long years apart.
The brave Eleri had tears in her eyes when she saw her Rhys standing in the courtyard of the castle, looking around for her, looking up at the arrow slit windows from where she looked down to see what the noise was about.
And she was not prepared for the sight of her Luci walking into the door towards her and falling into her arms.
She brushed the tears aside then. Her Rhys had come back to her and he would never leave again. She dried her eyes on the sleeve of her rough gown as she nursed Luci in her arms softly and spoke to her in that lilting voice that had always calmed her. She shushed her and asked her to come see her children, who did not know that they had returned yet.
Luci looked up at Eleri with naked pain in her face as she cried to her,
‘Eleri, what if they do not know me? I have been gone so long.’
Eleri smiled at her then as she spoke to her beloved Mistress and her friend, ‘My love, do you think that a single day has passed when they have not grieved for you both and for their brothers? Every day we have spoken of you and they have your image imprinted in their minds. Every day we have prayed for you all, and they are happy and cared for and will be overjoyed at your return. Not know you, cariad? How could they not know you? You are their life, as they are yours.
‘Come with me now and love them and they will help you to fight again for that which has been taken from us all and for which I have waited for the return of my Rhys to reclaim for us.’