Extracts

Draw nearRadiant Brow - The Beginning

The tale is woven

The Testing

The hut was windowless.  Its stone walls excluded all sound, and the heavy oak door had been barred from the outside and covered by a hide curtain.

Taliesin lay on his back on a pallet bed, in a darkness so intense it seemed that he could reach out and touch it.  His eyelids grew heavier, his limbs relaxing against the wooden planks of the bed.  The darkness cocooned him – soft, rich and warm.

Then he saw the figure of the spirit woman standing over him, her face framed by silver-fair hair.

‘Tell me who you are?’ he whispered.  Finally, he had managed to voice the question.

‘I am your guide, your companion.  The gods chose me to walk with you, and I will show you mysteries far beyond all you have dreamt of or feared.’

‘But what is your name?  Where are you from?’

‘My name I cannot reveal, though one day you may learn it.’  She smiled at his dismay.  ‘As to your second question…….a part of us both resides in the Otherworld, and together we walk between the worlds.’

She raised her hand, indicating for him to get to his feet.  As he did so and faced her, the woman took the form of Ceridwen.

‘Do you know me?’  For the first time she spoke to him – in a voice of eerie beauty.

Taliesin inclined his head, and from the depths of his being reached out to her, with a longing, a yearning, a love beyond any human love.

‘Most do not recognize me any longer,’ she said. ‘But without my nourishment – the elixir of inspiration that awakens the people to the living spirit of the land – Ynys Prydein becomes nothing but a barren waste.  Without me there is no true motivation to valour; the souls of the Britons are dry without my mead, the sacrament from my vessel, my mother’s milk.

Taliesin listened, shaking as if wracked by fever…..as if he stood in danger of his life.  And he knew then that he did.  They all did: his foster-kin at Braich y Dinas, his companions here, the heroes, the distant figure of Urien of Rheged, the farmers and herders – each one.

‘It does not have to be this way.’  The goddess spoke again.  ‘There are a few who can make the life flow again through the Awen.  A few who can give the Britons back their inner strength so the land will not be devoured by the wolves from across the sea.  You are one of those few, Taliesin.  But I will test you, test you to your limit.’

‘My Lady Ceridwen.’

The words seemed to strangle him, as he watched her face turn black, with a single eye of fire.  The locks of her hair transformed into writhing serpents, and vaporous breath poured from between broken teeth.  He saw a barren wilderness, earth scoured by scorching winds and icy blasts, his own body burning and shivering by turns.

The hag was screaming at him, words he could not understand.  Taliesin knew only that he had to escape, and began to run. He ran until his lungs ached.  He could hear her breathing closer and closer behind him.  He was not fast enough.  His legs felt like stone.  His heart hammered like hail on a roof……Faster……Faster.  Which animal could run faster than he?  A hare.  A hare.

In terror, he was racing between clumps of withered vegetation, past rocks that towered above him.  The landscape flashed by to either side.  His four legs moved with ease, lithe and strong.  But it was not enough.  She was on his heel, as a hound with swift stride and slavering jaw.  He must go faster……

The wilderness had become a plain.  Across it flowed a river.  The rushing water, his refuge.  Instinctively, he dived, down to the cool green depths, gliding smoothly, salmon tail propelling him onward.  But, shifting shape from hound to otter bitch, Ceridwen was pursuing.  Drawing nearer.  He could feel the pull of the water as she closed in.

With a mighty sweep of his tail, he leapt……

Then all was dark.  He looked from side to side, seeing nothing.  Clumsily, he sat up, the panic rising.  He stared into a void, not knowing who or what he was.  With trembling fingers he felt his own face and hair and limbs.

In the silence he could hear rapid breathing, and at first thought it was a predator, that still he was pursued.  The sound seemed to be coming from outside himself.  He was about to flee again when he realized where he was, and lay back with a sigh.

He tried to think, to understand whether he had been dreaming or journeying out of his body.  He remembered when he was a very small child, sitting on Eilonwy’s knee as she told him how he had been found by his foster-father.  It had always seemed like a bardic tale, not real, not a part of his own life.

Elffin had been hoping for a haul of salmon, instead he had found Taliesin.  The old question returned, pressing itself on his mind.  Who was he?  He had no blood parents.  Elffin had been expecting salmon.  Salmon.  That was what he had been in his vision.  If it was a vision.  He sat up once more.  He was going insane.  He had thought his comrade, Rhys, cowardly for hammering on the hut door and crying out until the Master went to him and gave him a sedative draught.

Taliesin sat in the darkness and solitude, desperately searching for some lost memory that would answer all his questions. That would make him whole.

From Part Two, Chapter Three

Three Drops from the Sacred Cauldron

The years pass

Battle

The Britons were encamped in Gwen Ystrad, where the River Idon flowed narrow and fast, close to its source in the mountains which cut the sky to either side of the valley.  Since first light, cloud had swept in from the east, driven by a wind that bit his flesh as Taliesin stood at the water’s edge, gazing towards the enemy camp on the far bank.  Though he had spent a troubled night and risen at dawn, his mind was clear, every sense heightened.  For the first time he would be with Urien’s forces as they rode into battle – a time he had long anticipated.

Turning his back on the rushing waters, he walked through the camp, greeted by warriors who sat by smoky fires, readying their weapons.  As he passed, he noticed a change of mood, like a brightness striking through the chill northern spring, a look of hope on hardened faces.

As the moments passed, activity in the camp increased.  And above the sound of the river, the valley filled with the snort and stamp of horses, the rattle of harness, men calling to each other.

Already many of the Britons were in the saddle, preparing to advance.  Dyfnarth wheeled his horse at the centre of his men, a spear held aloft as he addressed them, dark hair, lank from moisture, streaming across his shoulders, the scar on his cheek starkly visible.

Tension escalated.  As Taliesin mounted, moving forward with the company, Owain rode to his side, clothed in crimson, the round shield he carried emblazoned with his device of three ravens on a crimson ground.

‘The hour has come for the enemy to pray,’ he said, reining in.

When Taliesin turned, Owain saw the steely light in his eyes, deadly as a blade, and knew he would sooner face sword or spear than the strike of that power.  It was something he would never fully understand, yet it brought him confidence, hope of victory.

‘I am sent to remind you to stay well back.’  He glanced towards Urien’s distant figure.  ‘And to remain where  you are visible, for British morale and to unnerve the enemy.’

‘So I am to be like some gilded battle standard.  Honoured by being stuck in the rump of the advancing host!’

Owain laughed uneasily.  ‘As your comrade, I ask you not to put yourself at risk.’

Without further word, he dug his heels into the sides of his black stallion and accompanied the warriors who were making their way though the mud of the valley.

Heeding Urien’s message, Taliesin remained behind the lines, watching from a rocky outcrop clear of the action: a still figure clad in a white cloak trimmed with silver, his face and hair almost as white.  With him, four lesser bards watched, still and silent as he.

In the rushing water, the rough earth, the outline of mountains softened by mist, he saw the body of the Great Queen, the sacred land whose spirit bore the burdens of her people, his people.  And Ceridwen, her golden beauty savage and terrible, poured the elixir from her cauldron through him, into the heart of Ynys Prydein.

The battle was joined at the ford, the first advance led by Urien, strong as a man half his age.  Battle cries and the blast of war-trumpets echoing from the rocks, Rheged’s horsemen rode through the shallow waters, an answering yell rising from the Bernicians.

In a rain of death, British throwing spears struck the enemy ranks.  Screams and yells mingled with shouts of challenge and fury as the Angles retaliated, as spears fell amongst the Britons and scramasaxes slashed man and horse.

Above the field of battle, Taliesin began a low chant, summoning the spirit of the red dragon: the divine energy, the strength and courage that would fill the warriors who struggled to free the land.  Inhaling the sacred breaths, he channelled the power, seeing the enemy surge forward – bold warriors, many of gigantic stature, fighting on foot against the British cavalry.  Did they sense the presence of his gods, bright and deadly on the battlefield? As he sensed theirs – Tiw, and Woden the slayer, master of the sacred runes.  No battle was fought on one level alone.

From Part Four, Chapter Two