Flight of the Hawk: Chapter 4 - In the High Hills

Elmet is a land of contrasts. It stretches from the Low Peaks in the south to the Pennine Gap in the north, from the Western Wall above Aquae Arnemetiae to the eastern hills that fall by slow stages to the Saxon plain. Much of it is moorland and mountain, little peopled or visited, broken here and there by deep and fertile valleys. Once it was a big kingdom, but bit by bit it has been nibbled away by the Saxons in the east and northeast and by Rheged in the northwest, until only the rocky core is left. But rock can be very strong, and falcons are no less fierce for nesting high. On the high tops the old ways still linger, and stone circles are more common there than churches.

After our experiences in the marshy country to the west, and our steep climb up the Western Wall, Neirin and I were glad to stop for the night at a shepherds’ camp, where we were made welcome by the tough brown herders and their women and children. All summer they spend up there, from Beltane to Samhain, and care little for the goings-on below, but bards and storytellers they value above gold. Indeed, so warm was our welcome that we stayed three nights, and might have stayed much longer if we had so wished it. Night-times we sang and told stories by the fire, and daytimes we spent walking or lazing on the dry sheep-cropped turf; and bit by bit the silence of the high places soaked into us, and made us whole. Also the shepherd girls were very friendly, and the beer was good, so that all and all, we were almost sorry to move on.

We were going first to Aquae Arnemetiae, where we hoped to find Gwallawg Elmet, Neirin’s uncle. “Not,” as Neirin had said to me the day before, lying stretched out like a cat in the sunshine while one of the shepherd girls rubbed his back, “because I love him or he loves me over-much. He has never forgiven my mother for preferring the North to Elmet, or the man of her own choice to the one he would have chosen for her.”

“Did you not grow up here, then?” I asked lazily, half-asleep myself with my head in another girl’s lap. She bent over me and smiled, and her dark hair tickled my face.
“Na, na,” said Neirin, “I got my birth and my raising in Manau, with my Gododdin cousins, and only came south to this country when I was of an age to bear arms. And then I compounded my offense: for it was here Taliesin found me, not long after, and took me for his prentice, so I have never really lived in Elmet at all. But the general lay of the land here I know—well enough, at any rate, to find Aquae, where Gwallawg has one of his chief courts. Then we will be seeing—what there is to see.” And he rolled over and pulled his little dark girl down for a kiss, and we spoke no more for a while.

I was thinking back to that conversation as we came down the last hill to Aquae Arnemetiae, which in our tongue means “the Waters of the Goddess of the Sacred Grove.” This was a holy place time out of mind, as hot springs often are, and although the Ro¬mans had taken it over and made it largely theirs, some of its ancient aura still clung. Nowadays the town was the usual mixture of British wood and thatch over Roman stone which was beginning to be familiar to me. Aquae differed only in having relatively more stone than wood, and also in lacking a defensive palisade: an indication in itself of how secure—and how distant from its enemies—this falcon’s nest was.

Neirin had guessed right: Gwallawg was in residence. A big burly red-headed man with only a little grey starting in his abundant beard, he greeted us friendly-wise, though the embrace he gave his nephew was somewhat perfunctory. Aside from their general coloring there was no resemblance; Neirin, I thought, must take after his father. Gwallawg accepted our stated reason for the visit—that Neirin was set free by his master for a summer’s journeying, and was on his way north to compete in a bardic competition in Manau at the Lughnasadh Fair—readily enough, and went straight on to his own concerns. He swept us into his fire-hall, talking non-stop, ordering one servant to take our gear to the guest-house, another to bring food and wine, a third to build up the fire and bring lamps. As he began to tell us of his last-year’s raiding suc¬cesses against the Saxons of Deira and Bernicia, I perceived that uncle and nephew were not so unlike after all. It might be one reason for their lack of friendship.

“Iffi will think twice,” he was saying, “before he comes raiding in my domains again, I can tell you. We met them near Verbeia, and caught them in an ambush where the valley narrows; many a corpse they left behind them when they fled. If only Rheged had joined with me, we could have wiped them out; but so it is ever with Urien: he is more likely to attack his neighbors than combine with them against our mutual enemies. If you are going to his court on your way north, boy, you should go with care, for he does not love my bloodline, and he has reason.” And he smiled grimly.

“I will remember,” said Neirin soberly. “What news of the Saxons this spring?”
“Very little so far, but their raiding parties will be abroad be¬fore long. Do you carry weapons? I saw none about you.”

“Only a knife. Bards are generally safe.”

“Ha! Not from the Saxons!” Gwallawg grinned. “Is that all your master has taught you? I will find you a sword before you leave, if you can use one.”

“I can,” said Neirin tautly, his eyes sparkling and a flush rising into his thin cheeks. “And my friend Gwernin can as well.” He compressed his lips, as if holding back angry words. For myself, I tried to keep the surprise out of my face; swords and I were not well acquainted.

“Good,” said Gwallawg. “Then I will see you two here this evening. Perhaps you will show me then what you have learned.” And he turned away and went out without pause, shouting for his chamberlain, and leaving us to find our way to the guest-house by ourselves.

“Have you been back, since Taliesin took you?” I asked as we unpacked our saddlebags.
“Once,” said Neirin. His color was still high. “But I had him with me then. I should not be letting Gwallawg bait me so, I am too easy a target. I knew this would be hard. I should not have brought you here.”

“Why not?” I said lightly. “It is only for a few nights, and my heart tells me we will see worse in our wanderings.” And that was a true word.

Neirin sighed. “Yes, you are right. Let us walk outside; the need is on me for fresh air. And I can show you something—interesting.”

From the court he led me to a little hill. Halfway up it were stone-built ruins of a circular building. “This is part of it,” said Neirin, pushing aside the willow-herb and ivy that half blocked the entrance. “They do not use it now; the Christian priests have their way here instead. The Romans—improved—this place, but the core is older.”

Within the ruined walls was an open space, partly overgrown, and in the center a carved block of stone. I looked with interest at its front, but the figures were too worn to recognize. “Here,” said Neirin, going up to it, and placing both hands on the top. “Just—here.”

I put my square brown hands beside his freckled ones. At first there was only the chill of the stone, there in the shade of the ivy-grown walls, and the distant call of a bird in the trees outside; then I began to feel something more. The world around us grew paler, out of focus, in a way I was coming to know. There was a sound that was not a sound, and the faint echo of a presence recently familiar to me. I took a deep steadying breath, and looked up to meet Neirin’s eyes. He nodded. “Yes. He was here.”

It cost me an effort to lift my hands from the stone. Slowly the world came back into focus, and the air warmed toward summer, which had been winter-cold. My mouth was dry; I spoke with difficulty: “Claddedig?” Neirin nodded again; his eyes were wide and dark. I wondered what he was seeing. Then he too lifted his hands deliberately from the altar block and stood back, and sighed. “Yes,” he said. “Taliesin showed it to me, when we were here before, but I did not know…” He shook his head as if to clear it. “Come, there is more.”

“I am not sure I am for more, just now,” I said, striving for lightness as I followed him out of the ruin. “What else do you have to show me here?”

Neirin looked back and smiled. “Nothing so … heavy. I swear it. Is it that you are afraid?”

“More and more, with you,” I said, smiling back at him. “I think it is a Druid that you are.”

“Na, I am not. But—come you, and see. It is not far.” He went on up the hill, and I followed. Around the crest were young oaks, their leaves still golden-green with spring, and mixed with them two or three dark hollies. They spread a shadow over the hilltop all out of proportion to their size, like a memory of things past. I shivered as I went under them, but I followed Neirin.

At the crest he stopped and turned round, his gaze going up into the small trees that were not small from below. “Do you see it?” he asked. His eyes were bright. I shivered again; I had felt the Old Powers before. What he was seeing I did not want to see, but I had no choice. The light was fading even as I stood there, fading to dark green dusk, and again there were the sounds that were not sounds, that were memories of sounds: the echo of a brazen horn, faint and far-off, like the horn of Gwyn mab Nudd, and the sound of voices chanting. I closed my eyes and felt myself falling.

Then warm hands had mine in a hard clasp. “Gwernin,” said Neirin’s voice close beside me, “it is well with you: open your eyes.” I did so: we were in the grove, and sunlight was pouring through the young oaks to dapple the grass around me. Neirin was on his knees beside me, looking down at me anxiously, his dark red head cocked a little to one side and his amber eyes narrowed in concern. When he saw I was back in my body, his face relaxed. “It is sorry I am, not to have warned you,” he said. “I had forgotten… It took me like that the first time, too. Can you sit up?”
“Yes,” I said hoarsely, and did so. I looked around at the trees and the sunlight, and felt the peace that lay on the place now, and a deep calmness entered into every part of me.

“Arnemetia,” said Neirin softly. There was birdsong in the branches, a small sweet piping, and a little wind rustled the leaves. We sat for a long time listening to it. Only with the approach of evening did we rise and go back down the hill to Gwallawg’s court.

The torches were lit in the mead-hall that night, and fire burned on the central hearth, for though the day had been mild, Aquae lay high in the hills. Gwallawg kept no pencerdd in his hall just then, but he had a harper—a dark young man not so many years older than myself—who played for us during the first part of the meal. When hunger and thirst were satisfied, Gwallawg turned to Neirin, sitting beside him at the high table. “Well, Sister’s-Son, have you a song for me?”

“Na, na, Mother’s-Brother,” said Neirin lightly, “let me wait until tomorrow, that the song may be worthy of this hall. My friend Gwernin, I know, has a tale ready for you and would gladly tell it.”

“So I do, Lord,” I said, as Gwallawg turned to me. “Would you hear the tale of Maxen Wledig, and how he won a wife, and the High Kingship of Britain as well?”
“Gladly,” said Gwallawg. “Speak your tale.”

This was one of the stories I had learned from Talhaearn the past winter, though it is not a winter-tale as such, and I enjoyed the telling of it, and the gradually increasing look of interest and engagement on Gwallawg’s bearded face. “Well,” he said at the end, when the applause of the hall had died, “you at least have been well-taught, young man. Who is your master?”

“Talhaearn Tad Awen,” I said, not without pride, “and if I have a little lived up to his reputation I am glad, though I am the least of his students.”

Gwallawg smiled, and took a silver bracelet from his arm, and gave it to me. “Well have you done so,” he said. “I hope my sister’s son can do half so well tomorrow.” And with that he rose up and left the hall.

The next morning I woke in the green dawn to see Neirin by the door. “It is out I am going, Gwernin,” he said, when he saw I was awake. “I will be back with evening; bide you here in the court this day.” And before I could answer he was gone, leaving me wondering. I spent the day as I was bidden, and talked some time to Gwallawg’s young harper, Padarn, who came from the lands of the southwest near that other Aquae which is dedicated to Sulis, and had in his blood-line and his face much of the Roman. And with evening Neirin returned, though saying no word of where he had been that day.

When the feasting was over that night, Gwallawg turned to his nephew as before. “Well, Sister’s-Son,” he said, “are you ready now to show me what you have learned, or do you need yet more time to prepare?”

Neirin smiled faintly. “Since you offer it, Mother’s-Brother, I will take a little longer: tomorrow night I will be more ready. And I know that my friend Gwernin has yet another tale prepared that you will enjoy…”

“Indeed I have, Lord,” I said. “Would you hear a tale from Ire-land, of the warrior Cuchulainn and how he took up arms?”

Gwallawg laughed shortly. “It seems I have no choice, since my sister’s child is yet unready for his work. You I know to be well taught. Sa, I will hear that tale gladly.”

So I told the tale that I had told once before to Cyndrwyn’s young men while we stood the wolf-guard that past winter, and it was as well received by Gwallawg and his war-band, for it is a tale that appeals to all of the warrior-kind, whatever their nation. And at the end Gwallawg took another silver bracelet from his arm, and gave it to me. “I hope,” he said then, “that my sister’s boy-child is ready with his art tomorrow night, for the day after that I ride north, and would see you both a little way on your road.”

“I will be ready, Mother’s-Brother,” said Neirin calmly enough, though the tell-tale flush was mounting in his cheeks.

“Do you see, then, that you are,” said Gwallawg shortly, and he rose up as before and left the hall.

Again I woke in the green dawn to see Neirin by the door. “I am going out now, Gwernin,” he said, “but I will be back tonight.”

I yawned. “I suppose you know what you are doing,” I said sleepily, “but are you sure you would not like company? I can be ready in a moment.”

“Na, na,” said Neirin, and he laughed softly. “Do not you be worrying: I know what I am about. I will see you tonight,” and he was gone before I could protest more. And that day passed as had the day before; and at evening he came back to the court.

When the feasting was over that night, Gwallawg turned to his nephew as before. “Well, Sister’s-Son,” he said, “tomorrow I take the war-trail. Have you anything to show me before I go, that I may see the worth of your teaching, and your teacher?”

“Sa, sa, I do that,” said Neirin. “I have a song for you, Mother’s-Brother: weigh it as you will.” And he stood up, and took the singer’s stance, and he began.

“A golden song for a golden one,
a bright song for a bright fallen star:
she is gone down into deep darkness;
my heart within me is heavy as stone.

A golden song for a gold sister,
a bright song for one bright as day:
she is gone out forever from Elmet;
my heart within me is winter-dark.

A golden song for a gold lady,
a bright song for one briefly loved:
she is gone out now from Manau;
my heart within me is empty and cold.

A golden song for a golden one,
a bright song to warm my cold heart:
heavy green turf grows now over Dwywei:
who will not weep with me here for her loss?”

Gwallawg looked a long time in silence at his nephew when the song was done. “Sa, sa,” he said at last, and I could hear the tears in his voice. “I will weigh it and reward it.” And he called to a servant, and had a heavy chest brought into the hall and opened. From it he took a sword in a jewel-set scabbard, a weapon for a king, and held it out to Neirin. “Take you this, Sister’s-Son, as a small part of the value of your song: I repent me that ever I spoke against your master or his teaching. Hereafter you will both be welcome in my hall.”

Neirin looked long at his uncle and the offered gift, and I saw there were tears on his own cheeks as well. Then he nodded. “Sa, sa, I take it as it is offered,” he said, “provided only”—and here he smiled with that special warmth that lit up his face—“that you find some weapon as well for my friend Gwernin, who has defended me nobly while I prepared.”

“I might,” said Gwallawg, “do even that.” And with a smile the equal of Neirin’s own, he reached into the chest again, and from it drew a second, only slightly lesser, weapon, which he gave to me. And the next day when we rode out with his war-band, we both rode armed; and well it was for us that we did so.

But that, O my children, is a story for another day.

(Chapter 4 from Flight of the Hawk, Copyright 2007 by G. R. Grove.)