Rhodri's Furies

2024 Young Or Golden Writer
Equality Award
Book Cover Image
Logline or Premise
I wish to enter for the Phoenix award with this story since early Welsh medieval history is little known and chronicled; I hope to shed light on a particularly dark corner of early medieval history.
First 10 Pages

ONE

Din-Gonwy, cantref of Rhôs, North Wales, 835 AD

Iolyn ap Celyn sat close to his hearth, warming his old bones against the chill of the estuary’s damp air. The snowy-white hair tied back in a knot contrasted with his lively dark eyes. He had once been lauded as a fierce warrior and later, using the spoils of victory, as a breeder of Welsh Black cows. At its peak, he boasted a herd of 120 cattle. After the bovine plague of 810, his family fortune changed. The herd, if he could call it that now, consisted of seven cows. These were hard times, but while his son, Drystan, whose name meant sorrow because Iolyn’s wife had died in childbirth, scraped a living as a fisherman, and the elderly housebound man, for some while, had brooded on more challenging times ahead.

For this reason, he had asked Drystan to come to his home after completing his day’s work. The moment had come to react to their plight; otherwise, what future would his grandson have? The seventeen years since Alun’s birth seemed to have flown by to Iolyn. Indeed, at his venerable age, every passing year sped by. Ironically, time hung heavily as he waited for his son, and stretched out his gnarled hands, tormented by bone fever, to warm them over the flames. Increasingly, he lived on memories of past glory and felt ever more alone and useless. Yet, he understood that the elders in the community could offer wisdom to the younger folk, which was his intention today.

“At last, Drystan! How was your catch? Come in, Alun, sit next to your grandfather. You look blue with cold.”

The boy laughed. At his age, the sea air was bracing and the breeze nothing more than an annoyance when he aimed his arrows at a likely prey: hare, puffin, or rarely, partridge. Nonetheless, he sat willingly next to his grandsire, whom he hero-worshipped, having grown up with enthralling tales of battle between their tribe, the Decanae and neighbours in border incursions. Alun ap Drystan never tired of the old man’s stories of derring-do. He knew them to be true since other elders had often confirmed Iolyn’s heroic courage to him. The young boy had no other ambition but to emulate his grandsire and to test his valour on a battlefield.

Now, he sat, thick dark hair tied back in a knot just like his grandsire and his father, like most of the men of Din-Gonwy, his irises such a black as to be indistinguishable from the pupils. In this, he took after his grandsire, not Drystan, whose eyes were an intense grey. The advantage of Alun’s gaze was that whoever he fixed it on had the impression of receiving sincere and deep attention, whether true or not. On this occasion, those eyes latched onto his grandsire, his concentration riveted, not least because Iolyn referred to his future.

“Lately,” the elderly man said, “I have had premonitions. I’m not a prophet, but my forebodings are rarely wrong. I remember when—” to Alun’s delight and Drystan’s impatience, the old warrior spoke at length of his foreboding before a battle against the neighbouring Cornovii tribe in a territorial dispute. The defeat of the Decanae that day proved his point.

When his son clicked his tongue impatiently, Iolyn smiled wryly and returned to his argument. “As I said, these feelings of drifting towards disaster have tormented me for a while. I want you both to go to Myrddin ap Bren to consult him. Blood will out! Eight lifetimes ago, or thereabouts, his ancestor was a druid on Ynys Dryyll—the isle of shady groves. He is a druid, too, in everything but name. He prefers that we call him a seer or a bard since Christianity no longer permits Druidism. Pah! Religion!” The old man shook with rage. “What does the Church know about the old ways?Myrddin will clear up my worries. If I could but shed ten years, I’d go myself.” He gave detailed directions to the seer’s dwelling, which Drystan, who knew almost everyone in Din-Gonwy, didn’t need. Still, he pretended to absorb the instructions to humour his father, whose nature had become irascible recently.

Myrddin ap Bren wasn’t a hermit but lived alone in a round, stone building with a tiny window and door on the lee side on the extremity of the promontory. Nobody else was hardy or foolish enough to live in such an exposed place, where ill-tempered winds and waves lashed the rocky shore. Yet, Myrddin ascribed his rude health at a venerable age to this choice of location. While people occasionally came out as far as his tiny cell on the cape, more often, the seer wandered into the town that lay either side of the estuary, where Drystan and his wife, Alis ferch Betrys, had their home at five hundred paces from Iolyn’s.

The morning after their conversation with his father, Drystan led Alun along the left bank of the river Conwy that divided the settlement of Din-Gonwy, up to the mouth of the estuary. As a seasoned fisherman, Drystan knew the tide times as if they were tattooed on his forearm instead of the crossed swords that Alun so admired. He also wanted a tattoo, but his father had insisted he wait until manhood, when assuredly he would ink the rampant lion of his tribal banner. Such thoughts were far from his mind as he waded in after his father, so sure of the dangerous tidal currents, to step ashore on the opposite bank. He delighted in the alarmed cries of the oystercatchers as they flew reluctantly to another feeding ground to flee from the humans intruding upon their territory.

As they followed a beaten trail along the promontory, Alun gazed away to the west over the ocean, to the brooding shape of Ynys Dryyll, mentioned by his grandfather as the home of the druids in times past. Fleetingly, he wondered if Myrddin had chosen the location of his isolated dwelling to keep the home of his ancestors in sight every day. He would find out, he promised himself.

They found the old man purging and scrubbing clams he had gathered that morning.

Without raising his head from his task, Myrddin said, “Ah, Drystan ap Iolyn and his boy. What brings you to my humble abode?”

Alun marvelled that the seer had recognised them without looking, and it confirmed the man’s premonitory credentials to him.

“It is Iolyn who sends us, Myrddin, for he has been assailed by forebodings lately.”

“Ah, my old friend! He is wise and likely has the gift even if he knows it not and surely cannot use it.” The austere, wrinkled face with its prominent aquiline nose broke into a gap-toothed grin. “Come, sit down by me.” He took his place on a wooden bench that he’d shaped to follow the curved stone wall of his house. His hands patted the space to either side. Alun nipped smartly to sit on his right while Drystan took the place to his left. All three stared silently out over the waves until Alun broke the silence, looking towards Ynys Dryyll, “Did you ever go to yon isle, Myrddin ap Bren?” he addressed the seer formally as befitting one of his youth.

“Anglesey?” Myrddin said, using the recently adopted Norse name, Onguls-ey, for the isle. “Never, but my ancestors lived there, and from them, I possess the gift of divination.” He sighed heavily. “Maybe I will choose to end my days there, young fellow.

“As you know,” his pale-blue eyes gazed into the twin coals of Alun’s eyes, “I chose to live here to see my spiritual home every day.”

Alun suspected the seer could read his mind and wriggled uneasily on his seat.

The feeling soon passed as the blue eyes stared unseeingly out to sea, and the old man began to tremble, intriguing his visitors. Suddenly, he moaned. It was a long, drawn-out groan that ended with a deep sigh and the glazed appearance of his eyes changed into an alert, shrewd expression.

“Hitherto, the wolves have left us in peace. They have chosen easy pickings. The nearest places they reach are Northumbria, Kent, and Alba, and when they venture down to the Channel, they are distracted by Brittany and Frankia. The inconvenience of our geographical position has saved us. When they come, the time is not yet, for first, they will settle on Man and Ireland. They will not come for livestock or timber but silver, gold, and gems.

Arun was puzzled and, despite his respect for the ancient seer, blurted, “Who? Who are these wolves?”

“Norsemen, boy. Raiders who live by piracy, sea wolves, bringing death and destruction with them,” his voice rose with his anger. “Be sure that they will come and you, Alun ap Drystan, must be ready to fight. You will be a great warrior and mingle with the greatest in the land. Alun’s mouth dropped open, and his eyes widened.

Meanwhile, Drystan, you must go—” his eyes unfocussed again, and in a language as old as the mountains, murmured, “—to y tarn bach dros yr hen dderwen.”

“To the small tarn over the old oak,” Alun translated aloud. “I know where that is, father. I sometimes hunt hare up there.”

“Ay, so you do,” said the seer, “and there you must find the battle prince. Befriend him, and you will write your name in the annals of Gwynedd.”

Again, Alun’s jaw dropped. The ancient seer seemed to be building him up for greatness that nobody could suspect by looking at the skinny, callow youth. Yet, surely, a lad could dream! But who was this battle prince? He quelled the mischievous thought that he should challenge the seer and protest that he was a nonentity. That wasn’t how he saw himself, or what he wanted his future to make of him. Far better to believe the venerable man’s words and treasure them in his heart as if gospel truth.

“Father, we should go before the tide rises further.”

Drystan waved an impatient hand. “But I don’t know what it is I should do at the tarn.” He raised an inquiring eyebrow.

The seer replied immediately, smiling smugly as if considering himself the receptacle of all knowledge.

“Find Iowerth ap Afon there, and everything will fall into place.”

Father and son hurried away, hardly exchanging words until Alun asked, “Father, do you believe the seer?”

“Of course, I do. He has the gift, and he is never wrong. It’s not always easy to interpret his words, but when you do, he’s proved right every time.”

“B-but, father, he said I’d be a great warrior and mingle with the greatest in the land. How can that be?”

Drystan frowned because those words hadn’t been lost on him. He weighed his reply carefully. “He’s never wrong,” he repeated. “One thing is for sure, Alun, that cannot be tomorrow. To become a great warrior requires training and determination.”

“I have harboured a secret for some time, father.” He tripped over a gorse root, almost fell, and swore under his breath, but regained balance and composure. “It has long been my dream to be a warrior like my grandsire.”

Drystan grunted and said nothing. Instead, he thought, the old fool has filled the boy’s head with exaggerated nonsense. Now Myrddin ap Bren has added his words for good measure. I will have to keep the boy’s feet on the ground, or he’ll be slain.

Again, they dislodged the protesting oystercatchers and a curlew, whose call echoed across the estuary to Alun’s delight. He was an ardent student of wildlife and enjoyed watching and hearing its behaviour.

The tide had risen several inches, so they forced their way towards the other bank with more fatigue. Where on the outward trip, the seawater had been halfway up their calves, now it soaked their breeches at mid-thigh.

“It’s as well we lingered no longer with Myrddin ap Bren,” his father called. “Soon, we’d be up to our waists and risking a strong undertow.” But they weren’t in danger because not long after he’d uttered these words, Drystan moved forward more swiftly as he neared the shallower water by the shore. With relief, they stepped onto dry, coarsely grassed dunes, and grumbled but with a smile about their uncomfortably wet breeches and footwear. The taller man had not wet his tunic, but the hem of the youth’s clung damply to his thighs and groin.

“We’ll dry out as we walk. Where is this tarn you know so well?”

“Follow me,” Alun chirped, pleased and proud to act as a guide to his father, “we’ll take this trail.” He pointed to a sheep track running between two spiky gorse bushes. The Decanae farmers still had some free-roaming sheep grazing along the coastal plain, as testified by a small wad of wool snagged on the thorns and ruffled by the sea breeze, like Alun’s dark locks.

By the time they had marched up the winding path until they came to a gnarled ancient oak, their clothes had dried, and they felt more comfortable. Alun pointed up the side of the steeply rising hill to where his father could just make out the shape of a roof.

“The house is by the tarn, so we’ll have to follow that path.” He indicated a cut in the rock, likely hewn generations long gone, which created a passable trail littered with stones.

Luckily, both were physically fit thanks to their different activities, so they arrived at the trail’s end with no shortage of breath. Drystan rubbed his aching thighs ruefully because his work didn’t include climbing steep slopes. Thankful to have come to a plateau, he gazed admiringly at the silvery water of the tarn.

“I’ll wager there are fish a-plenty in there,” he said to his son, but it wasn’t Alun who answered. Instead, a gruff voice said, “You’d win your bet. There are trout and perch, and I’d guess at carp, although I’ve never caught one in all these years.”

They turned to stare at the grinning face of a stocky fellow with a pale complexion and a carrot-coloured beard and hair. Drystan remembered him from several years before the bovine plague struck when the herder, practising seasonal transhumance, drove his cattle in late spring from the pasture by the estuary to the lush meadow by the tarn.

“Greetings, Iorwerth ap Afon. Myrddin the Seer has sent me to meet with you, although I know not why.”

“Come into my home and sup an ale with me. We rarely have visitors.”

The two guests followed their host into a house empty of other occupants. The general air of disorder spoke of a lack of feminine care.

“Do you live alone, Iorwerth?” Drystan asked.

“Nay, Cadfael lives with me. His mother died some winters past. It’ll be seven this coming winter. He’s out hunting. I reckon he’ll be about your age, young fellow.”

At the mention of the son’s name, Alun sat up. In their language, Cadfael, like all names, had a meaning. Alun’s name meant little rock, but that was neither here nor there. His heart beat faster at the meaning of Cadfael: battle prince.

“What’s Cadfael hunting?” he asked.

“Oh, he’s gone to the woods with his bow, back there.” Iorwerth tilted his head vaguely. “He’s an excellent shot, and whatever he comes across will go in the cauldron.” He jerked his thumb at a blackened iron container hanging over the charred remains of a fire. “I’ll wager he’ll come back with something to fill our stomachs.”

“I’d like to go hunting with him,” Alun said cheerfully, “I’m handy with a bow myself.”

“In that case, you’ll get on well. As I say, he’s about your age and could do with a friend. It’s a companionless life up here,” he said regretfully.

“What became of your herd?” Drystan asked.

“The same as your father’s, I dare say.” The deep-green eyes narrowed, and the previously cheerful expression grew thoroughly miserable. “Wiped out, the lot of them! The damned plague spread through them like fire driven by the wind. It ruined me! The pestilence took them all except for Tawr.”

“Tawr?”

Comments

Stewart Carry Mon, 27/05/2024 - 16:50

It felt as if the richness of descriptive detail eclipsed the characters and compromised any real relationship developing at this early stage. Perhaps more attention to dialogue in the set-up would help.