Nowadays I often find, looking back, that the years and journeys blend together, so I can no longer be sure as to which time or place many of my memories belong. One day on the road is much like many another, within the usual gamut of heat and cold, dust and mud, sun and rain and snow; one rough lodging much like the next. Even the faces blend together over the years, various and individual though they all are: bright with interest in my performance, or dull with boredom; young or old, sober or drunken, ill or well. But at the time of which I speak, I was still new to the road and to my trade, and every day was an adventure, every night a fresh excitement as I stretched my growing abilities. So it was with Caer Dydd, my first big festival. Every detail of it is still clear in my mind, bright as a fresh-opened flower, not only for its own sake, but also for what came after.
We arrived there on a fine spring day, not long after our stop at Caerllion. Indeed, it was for Caer Dydd we had been making all the while, and the great Beltane fair that was held there every spring, when the roads and the seas first opened to travelers and traders. Many of them came, as we did, to set up their booths by the strand, and there I first stared open-mouthed at two things I had never seen before: the sea, and the ships that lived and traveled on her back.
It was the sea that caught me first: the sea of which I had heard so often in the tales. On the sea the Romans had come to Britain, and over it they had sailed away. On the sea Maxen Wledig had come to us, and over it he had gone when he left, taking many of our warriors with him to settle Less Britain. Yes, and older still: Brân the Blesséd had crossed the sea to rescue his sister from Ireland, and into the sea had gone Dylan ail Ton after his birth, to bide there with his great seal father, and rule over it in his turn. And over the sea, more prosaically, had come the foreign traders with their bright wares to the Beltane fair at Caer Dydd.
That afternoon the sea near the mouth of the Severn stretched broad and blue away from me, wind-ruffled into short sharp waves, hiding infinite possibilities. The tide was out, and the smell of mud and fish and seaweed, and who knows what besides, was strong on the warm spring air, and the sky above loud with the crying of gulls. Three or four small boats were lying beached on the mud, while other larger ships swung at anchor some way out. Above the tide-line fishermen and traders alike had set up booths and tents, and a busy market was already in progress.
I followed Ieuan as he worked his way through the crowd—a thin crowd as yet, for it was early in the fair—looking for a place to set out his wares. This early in the year his stock consisted mostly of small, light items of bone and horn and wood—double-sided combs, elaborately carved and decorated; pins for the cloak or the hair, painted or wound with wire; cases for bronze needles; and small trinket boxes for a lady’s treasures. Rings, too, he had, and a few bracelets, fashioned of twisted copper or silver wire. Ieuan himself had made most of them during the winter, working steadily through the short days and long nights by the fire. Now he would trade them, if he could, for other small, light things of greater value, brought by the traders from overseas, to carry with us on our travels and sell or trade again along the way. Not until autumn would we go home to Pengwern.
In the meantime, here at Caer Dydd, there was the Bel-tane fair to enjoy, and the competitions to look forward to. Christian though these lands were then, at least in name, yet most of us held also by the old festivals, which are the rhythm of the land and the seasons. And Beltane has always been one of the Great Festivals, the spring festival that follows the first plowing. There would be days and days of celebration, and meat and drink in plenty; plenty of employ-ment, too, for storytellers and minstrels such as we.
Whether because of its position on the coast of south Wales, a popular landfall for traders on their way to Ireland, or because there had already been a settlement there when the Romans came, Caer Dydd had fared better than her sister Caerllion, having been taken over by the local chief as a strongpoint rather than being left to fall to ruin. Some of the buildings in the fort had been maintained, and it was in one of these, on the last night before Beltane, that a storytelling competition took place: for as you know, many tales—Winter-tales—should only to be told in the dark half of the year, between Samhain and Beltane. There it was that I first stood up to speak in contest, to be judged against my peers.
Well I remember the flickering firelight on the roughly plastered walls and blackened roof-beams of that hall, and on the watching faces of my audience, glinting on here a fine shoulder-brooch, and there a gilded bracelet, as the owners moved. I remember the patter of rain on the roof-tiles, and the barking of dogs outside the hall, and the smell of the blue wood-smoke from the central hearth-fire that eddied now and then into my face and stung my eyes. I remember the listening silence of that crowd of men and women and children, broken from time to time by a cough or the scrape of a bench, and the beating excitement in me, half fear and half exaltation, as I first told my tale before so many, weaving with all my skill a net of words to catch and hold their interest.
I wish I could say that I won that contest, but I am sworn to keep to truth in these tales, so far as the truth may be known—for often it seems to me to change with the observer. No, I did not win, but my performance was well received, and toasted afterwards by one of the local lords, who gave me a ring-brooch from his own shoulder in token of his approval. A simple thing it was, but pleasant, made of good bronze, with a red enamel design covering the two terminals of the ring and the base of the pin. It had been fashioned at his own court of Dinas Powys, a short journey to the south and west from Caer Dydd. I wonder now, looking back, if it was not my choice of a tale told often in his home country that commended me to him as much as my expertise. However that may be, it was my first such moment of recognition, and shines the brighter in my memory be-cause of it. Though I have since had many finer jewels, I still keep that brooch as a talisman. Worth is not always measured in weight of gold.
It was the same Lord Dafydd of Dinas Powys who that night issued a general invitation to all the bards and storytell-ers there to join him at his court for a few days after the fair ended. “For,” he said, “it is seldom I have the enjoyment of such an array of riches as you have spread before me here, and I would fain keep it for a little longer. Moreover, I currently have no bard in my hall, and must needs chose one soon,” and he grinned, “least my word-fame be lost, and my name vanish with me.”
So it happened that on the day after the fair Ieuan and I and several others were making our way up the steep track which led to Dinas Powys, a track deep-rutted from the wagon-loads of wine-barrels and oil-jars that had come up from the harbor earlier in the week to gladden the hearts of the merchant-kind. Ieuan was in a good mood for a change, for his trading had gone well, and our packs rode the lighter on our shoulders for it. He was a quiet man as a rule, given to gloomy silences, but that day he spoke more than usual, asking the others with us about their travels, and about the temper of the country that spring.
“Quiet enough so far,” said Kyan Goch, a red-headed man from Dumnonia in southwest Britain. “The Saxons will likely be stirring again before long, though. Still, I suppose we should be grateful for such peace as we have.”
“Ah, but where is the glory in peace?” asked another. “No warfare, no glory; no glory, no need for bards to sing it; no need for bards, and we are on the road again!” And he laughed.
“Na, there will always be need for bards,” said Kyan. “If not to sing the warriors’ deeds now, then to remember those who fought before, and teach those who will fight afterwards the way of it. There is always need for songs of Arthur, and Maxen Wledig, and those who went before. One way and another, there must always be bards, as long as the earth stands, and the stars shine above, and the gray sea surrounds us. We are like the pin in the cloak-clasp,” and he touched the great brooch on his shoulder, “the smallest, plainest part, and yet without it the brooch falls away and is lost, and the cloak with it, and the man perishes from the cold. So is it with us. If the bards should ever take the druids’ road west, it would be a black day for the Cymry, for what is there to hold a people together who do not remember their past?”
No one answered him, for we had reached the top, and the hospitality of Dinas Powys awaited us.
But that, O my children, is a story for another day.
(Chapter 2 from Storyteller, copyright 2007 by G. R. Grove)
Continue with Chapter Three.