Owain Rheghed by Laurie Atkinson

The woods were burning. All night the torches had been moving through the elms. Up the cliffs, from the river, a thousand flames were moving, growing thicker, so that the blackness was swallowed up between them. Now a band of fire encircled Argoed Llwyfain.

Cenau looked out from the ramparts. Day was coming, beyond the torches below there was another light glowing to the East. There would be spear-play come morning. Were it not for the ragged stone walls of Argoed Llwyfain the fort would have been ablaze hours ago. A few burning arrows had passed over during the night but none had taken. The little water left inside the fort was ready in buckets to douse any blaze. The men had grumbled, already they were arguing over whose thirst was the most raging. King Urien had hidden away the mead.

They would not last long. They were few, they were fearful. Fflamddwyn’s host would struggle against the high defences should they choose to attack, yet they had but to wait.

A bitter end, thought Cenau, a meek end; the work of giants fallen to an Angle upstart, the seat of Rheghed burnt around the corpse of its lord. No songs would be sung of this final defeat. Who would sing them?

Cenau wept. He wept for Rheghed, for King Urien, but most of all he wept for Owain. Owain, who himself would not see his kingdom fall for the tears in his eyes. Owain, who’s actions on the field with his great sword and it’s ringed pommel outdid even his boasts in the hall. Yet it was long since the prince had supped with his lord beneath the gables of Llewlysoedd. Some grim prison held Owain. Not all the man had returned that had ridden southwards some two years before. Cenau had asked Owain many times what had befallen him in his journey, but he would tell nothing. He said only that his body had returned yet his heart remained, and would steal away before his friend could ask more. Such was that he had become, a man of hollow breast that dwelt alone with his grief. No shield would he bear, horses dreaded to go near him, he was forbidden his sword lest he should slay himself. Wasted, thought Cenau. The noble bud would burn.

Morning had come. From Fflamddwyn’s host four horsemen were approaching. Each bore a torch, they had no spears, but wore great swords hung from their belts. The foremost horseman was a huge man. He wore a helmet with cheek guards and a mask that covered his whole face. From it flowed long flaming hair and a bristling red beard; Fflamddwyn himself. He called up to Cenau in the thick tongue of Bernicia, demanding hostages, women, and promising in a laughing voice that Argoed Llwyfain would be spared should his demands be answered in the hour. He did not wait for an reply, there were none there to give him one. Cenau’s throat burned.

He looked left and right, to the tired warriors leaning on their spears on the ramparts. He would never pay Fflamddwyn, he would never leave himself at the mercy of his treachery. Yet what else was there to do?

Now another figure was approaching. She was all in white, on foot, and carried no weapons or provisions but for a small wooden box. When Cenau saw her she was only a spear’s throw from the walls and he could see every drop of dew glistening on her dress as she moved through the grass. Her eyes caught his, there was the glimmer of a smile on her lips. She spoke to him slowly and crisply in his own language,

“I seek my lord Owain.”

Cenau called for the gates to be unbarred and she entered.

Doors opened, slumbering men awoke, all eyes in the fort bent towards the strange visitor. Who was she? From whence had she travelled? How had she moved through the Angles unseen? What eyes failed to answer tongues soon inquired. But she did not hear the Cambrians. She said only that she moved by the moon and sought the lion, then asked again for her lord Owain. Cenau told her that no lord of that name still dwelt at Argoed Llwyfain, though there was one within its walls that had once born such a title, should she be able to find him. He called the men away from her, he told them they must be ready to break shields and crack skulls. Sulkily, they moved for their weapons. The lady of the moon slipped into the fort.

Cenau assembled the warriors behind the gates. Their hour had almost passed and a steady rain was falling. It soaked skin, it ran down shields and spears, it softened the mud to clarts that clung to shoes. Beyond the walls Cenau could hear the Angles calling and crying, eager for tinder. He moved to the head of his force. Words were needed, yet none came. Cenau tried to speak, but could utter only a whisper that was lost to the rain. Then, from amongst the ranks, a sword was raised. It was a vast sword, perhaps the height of a man, and at the base of its hilt was an ivory ring. It’s bearer moved towards Cenau, he seemed to grow in stature as he approached and called out in a voice that made the rain cower in silence,

The woods shall burn red with the Firebearer’s blood,

the rivers shall burst and the valleys shall flood,

a princess shall tread on the Maiden Way east,

the wolf shall not thirst and the ravens shall feast,

tongues shall be torn and teeth be made meal

many a blow shall the Cambrians deal!

The helm is worn proud by he that scorns fear,

let the grass grow over he that shuns spear!

It was Owain. He stood as of old, straight, tall and broad backed, a heavy cloak concealing the long coat of mail beneath. The men of Argoed Llwyfain stood in amazement. They stared hard, they rubbed the water from the eyes, then, as one, they called out as he had done,

The woods shall burn red with the Firebearer’s blood,

let the grass grow over he that shuns spear!

The gates were opened. The Cambrians emerged, and the ravens did feast that day. Fflamddwyn and his men had heard the call. It had echoed through the woods as the rain doused their torches and soaked his red beard. They stood in fear, but not for the long. Owain was soon upon them. He felled a warrior with every stroke, and roared so that those beyond the reach of his blade were soon scattered amongst the elms. Fflamddwyn flew, drowned they said, and Owain the Lion hunted until noon. Cenau looked on. He had not moved since Urien’s son had revealed himself. He gazed at the warrior, at his sword. Only now did he notice a bracelet of bright hair around the bone. He thought of the lady of the moon, of her box, but most of all he thought of the strange potent that Owain had spoken,

The woods shall burn red,

the rivers shall burst,

a princess shall tread,

the wolf shall not thirst.

Tongues shall be torn.

Too many the blow.

The helm is worn.

Let the grass grow.