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Authors: Ellis Peters

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those within the enclave emerged into the green track without, Owain’s officers
from the encampment fell into neat order about them, lining either flank, and
Cadfael observed with interest but without surprise that there were archers
among them, and two keeping their station a few yards behind Bledri ap Rhys’s
left shoulder. Given this particular guest’s undoubted quickness of perception,
he was equally aware of them, and just as clearly he had no objection to their
presence, for in the first mile he did not let it inhibit him from changing his
position two or three times to speak a civil word in Canon Morgant’s ear, or
exchange courtesies with Hywel ab Owain, riding close at his father’s back. But
he did not make any move to edge his way through the attendant file of guards.
If they were keeping him in mind of his virtual captivity, so was he bent on
assuring them that he was perfectly content, and had no intention of attempting
to remove himself. Indeed, once or twice he looked to left and right to take
the measure of the prince’s unobtrusive efficiency, and seemed not unfavourably
impressed by what he saw.

of which was of considerable interest to an inquisitive man, even if at this
stage it remained undecypherable. Put it away at the back of the mind, along
with everything else of oddity value in this expedition, and the time would
come when its meaning would be revealed. Meantime, here was Mark, silent and
happy at his elbow, the road westward before him, and the sun bright on Owain’s
pennant of bright hair at the head of the column. What more could any man ask
on a fine May morning?

did not, as Mark had expected, bear somewhat northwards towards the sea, but
made due west, over softly rolling hills and through well-treed valleys, by
green trails sometimes clearly marked, sometimes less defined, but markedly
keeping a direct line uphill and down alike, here where the lie of the land was
open and the gradients gentle enough for pleasant riding.

old, old road,” said Cadfael. “It starts from Chester, and makes straight for
the head of Conwy’s tidal water, where once, they say, there was a fort the
like of Chester. At low tide, if you know the sands, you can ford the river
there, but with the tide boats can ply some way beyond.”

after the river crossing?” asked Mark, attentive and glowing.

we climb. To look westward from there, you’d think no track could possibly
pass, but pass it does, up and over the mountains, and down at last to the sea.
Have you ever seen the sea?”

How could I? Until I joined the bishop’s household I had never been out of the
shire, not even ten miles from where I was born.” He was straining his eyes
ahead as he rode now, with longing and delight, thirsty for all that he had
never seen. “The sea must be a great wonder,” he said on a hushed breath.

good friend and a bad enemy,” said Cadfael, beckoned back into old memories.

it, and it will do well by you, but never take liberties.”

prince had set a steady, easy pace that could be maintained mile by mile in
this undulating countryside, green and lush, patterned with hamlets in the
valleys, cottages and church snugly huddled together, the fringe of cultivable
fields a woven tapestry round them, and here and there solitary, scattered
throughout the tref, the households of the free landowners, and no less solitary,
somewhere among them, their parish church.

men live lonely,” said Mark, taking in the distinction with some wonder. “These
are the freeborn men of the tribe. They own their land, but not to do as they
please with it, it descends by strict law of inheritance within the family. The
villein villages till the soil among them, and pay their communal dues
together, though every man has his dwelling and his cattle and his fair share
of the land. We make sure of that by overseeing the distribution every so
often. As soon as sons grow to be men they have their portion at the next

no one there can inherit,” Mark deduced reasonably.

but the youngest son, the last to grow into a portion of his own. He inherits
his father’s portion and dwelling. His elder brothers by then will have taken
wives and built houses of their own.” It seemed to Cadfael, and apparently to
Mark also, a fair, if rough and ready, means of assuring every man a living and
a place in which to live, a fair share of the work and a fair share of the
profit of the land.

you?” asked Mark. “Was this where you belonged?”

and could not belong,” Cadfael acknowledged, looking back with some surprise at
his own origins. “Yes, I was born in just such a villein tref, and coming up to
my fourteenth birthday and a slip of land of my own. And would you believe it
now?—I did not want it! Good Welsh earth, and I felt nothing for it. When the
wool merchant from Shrewsbury took a liking to me, and offered me work that
would give me licence to see at least a few more miles of the world, I jumped
at that open door as I’ve jumped at most others that ever came my way. I had a
younger brother, better content to sit on one strip of earth lifelong. I was
for off, as far as the road would take me, and it took me half across the world
before I understood. Life goes not in a straight line, lad, but in a circle.
The first half we spend venturing as far as the world’s end from home and kin
and stillness, and the latter half brings us back by roundabout ways but
surely, to that state from which we set out. So I end bound by vow to one
narrow place, but for the rare chance of going forth on the business of my
house, and labouring at a small patch of earth, and in the company of my
closest kin. And content,” said Cadfael, drawing satisfied breath.


came over the crest of a high ridge before noon, and there below them the
valley of the Conwy opened, and beyond, the ground rose at first gently and
suavely, but above these green levels there towered in the distance the
enormous bastions of Eryri, soaring to polished steel peaks against the pale
blue of the sky. The river was a winding silver thread, twining a tortuous
course through and over shoals of tidal mud and sand on its way northward to
the sea, its waters at this hour so spread and diminished that it could be
forded without difficulty. And after the crossing, as Cadfael had warned, they

first few green and sunny miles gave way to a rising track that kept company
with a little tributary river, mounting steeply until the trees fell behind,
and they emerged gradually into a lofty world of moorland, furze and heather,
open and naked as the sky. No plough had ever broken the soil here, there was
no visible movement but the ruffling of the sudden wind among the gorse and low
bushes, no inhabitants but the birds that shot up from before the foremost
riders, and the hawks that hung almost motionless, high in air. And yet across
this desolate but beautiful wilderness marched a perceptible causeway laid with
stones and cushioned with rough grass, raised clear of the occasional marshy
places, straddling the shallow pools of peat-brown water, making straight for
the lofty wall of honed rock that seemed to Brother Mark utterly impenetrable.
In places where the firm rock broke through the soil and gave solid footing,
the raised sarn remained visible as a trodden pathway needing no ramp of
stones, but always maintained its undeviating line ahead.

made this,” said Brother Mark in awe.

made it,” said Cadfael. It was wide where it was clearly to be seen, wide
enough for a column of men marching six abreast, though horsemen had to ride no
more than three in line, and Owain’s archers, who knew this territory well,
drew off on either flank and left the paved way to the company they guarded. A
road, Cadfael thought, made not for pleasure, not for hawking or hunting, but
as a means of moving a great number of men from one stronghold to another as
quickly as possible. It took small count of gradients, but set its sights
straight ahead, deviating only where that headlong line was rankly impossible
to maintain, and then only until the obstacle was passed.

through that sheer wall,” Mark marvelled, staring ahead at the barrier of the
mountains, “surely we cannot go.”

you will find there’s a gate through, narrow but wide enough, at the pass of
Bwlch y Ddeufaen. We thread through those hills, keep this high level three or
four more miles, and after that we begin to descend.”

the sea?”

the sea,” said Cadfael.

came to the first decline, the first sheltered valley of bushes and trees, and
in the heart of it bubbled a spring that became a lively brook, and accompanied
them downhill gradually towards the coast. They had long left behind the
rivulets that flowed eastward towards the Conwy; here the streams sprang
sparkling into short, precipitous lives, and made headlong for the sea. And
down with this most diminutive of its kind went the track, raised to a firm
level above the water, at the edge of the cleft of trees. The descent became
more gradual, the brook turned somewhat away from the path, and suddenly the
view opened wide before them, and there indeed was the sea.

below them a village lay in its patterned fields, beyond it narrow meadowland
melting into salt flats and shingle, and then the wide expanse of sea, and
beyond that again, distant but clear in the late afternoon light, the coast of Anglesey
stretched out northward, to end in the tiny island of Ynys Lanog. From the
shore towards which they moved the shallow water shimmered pale gold overlaid
with aquamarine, almost as far as the eye could distinguish colour, for Lavan
Sands extended the greater part of the way to the island shore, and only there
in the distance did the sea darken into the pure, greenish blue of the deep
channel. At the sight of this wonder about which he had dreamed and speculated
all day long, Mark checked his horse for a moment, and sat staring with flushed
cheeks and bright eyes, enchanted by the beauty and diversity of the world.

happened that Cadfael turned his head to see where someone else had reined in
at the same moment, perhaps in the same rapt delight. Between her two guardian
canons Heledd had checked and sat staring before her, but her sights were
raised beyond the crystal and gold of the shallows, beyond the cobalt channel
to the distant shore of Anglesey, and her lips were austerely drawn, and her
brows level and unrevealing. She looked towards her bridegroom’s land, the man
against whom she knew nothing, of whom she had heard nothing but good; she saw
marriage advancing upon her all too rapidly, and there was such a baffled and
resentful sadness in her face, and such an obstinate rejection of her fate,
that Cadfael marvelled no one else felt her burning outrage, and turned in
alarm to find the source of this intense disquiet.

as suddenly as she had halted she shook the rein, and set her horse to an impatient
trot downhill, leaving her black-habited escort behind, and threaded a way
deeper into the cavalcade to shake them off at least for a few rebellious

her vehement passage through the ranks of the prince’s retinue, Cadfael absolved
her of any deliberate intent in drawing close alongside Bledri’s mount. He was
simply there in her way, in a moment she would have passed by him. But there
was intent enough in the opportunist alacrity with which Bledri reached a hand
to her bridle, and checked her passage knee to knee with him, and in the
intimate, assured smile he turned upon her as she yielded to the persuasion.
There was, Cadfael thought, one instant when she almost shook him off, almost
curled her lip with the tolerant mockery which was all she truly felt for him.
Then with perverse deliberation she smiled at him, and consented to fall in
beside him, in no hurry to free herself of the muscular hand that detained her.
They rode on together in apparent amity, with matched pace and in easy talk
together. The rear view of them suggested to Cadfael nothing more than a
continuation of a somewhat malicious but enjoyable game on both parts, but when
he turned his head cautiously to see what effect the incident had had upon the
two canons of Saint Asaph it was all too plain that to them it implied
something very different. If Meirion’s drawn brows and rigid lips threatened
storms towards Heledd and rage towards Bledri ap Rhys, equally they were stiff
with apprehension of what must be going on behind the controlled but ominous
rectitude of Morgant’s fleshy countenance.

well! Two days more, and it should be over. They would be safely in Bangor, the
bridegroom would cross the strait to meet them, and Heledd would be rapt away
to that mist-blue shore beyond the faint gold and ice-blue of Lavan Sands. And
Canon Meirion could draw breath in peace at last.

came down to the rim of the salt flats and turned westward, with the quivering
plane of the shallows reflecting glittering light on their right hand, and the
green of field and copse on the left, rising terrace beyond terrace into the
hills. Once or twice they plashed through tenuous streams trickling down
through the salt marshes to the sea. And within the hour they were riding
alongside the high stockade of Owain’s royal seat and tref of Aber, and the
porters and guards at the gates had seen the shimmer of their colours nearing,
and cried their coming within.

all the buildings that lined the walls of the great court of Owain’s maenol,
from stables and armoury and hall, and the array of guest dwellings, the
household came surging to welcome the prince home, and make his visitors
welcome. Grooms ran to receive the horses, squires came with pitchers and
horns. Hywel ab Owain, who had distributed his hospitable attentions
punctiliously during the journey, moving from rider to rider with civilities as
his father’s representative, and no doubt taking due note of all the
undercurrents that drew taut between them, with his father’s interests in mind,
was the first out of the saddle, and went straight to take the prince’s bridle,
in an elegant gesture of filial respect, before ceding the charge to the
waiting groom, and going to kiss the hand of the lady who had come out from the
timber hall to welcome her lord home. Not his own mother! The two young boys
who came leaping down the steps from the hall door after her were hers, lithe
dark imps of about ten and seven years, shrilling with excitement and with a
flurry of dogs wreathing round their feet. Owain’s wife was daughter to a
prince of Arwystli, in central Wales, and her lively sons had her rich
colouring. But an older youth, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, followed them more
circumspectly down the steps, and came with authority and confidence straight
to Owain, and was embraced with an affection there was no mistaking. This one
had his father’s fair hair deepened into pure gold, and his father’s impressive
male comeliness refined into a startling beauty. Tall, erect, with an athlete’s
grace of movement, he could not emerge into any company without being noticed,
and even at a distance the brilliant northern blue of his eyes was as clear as
if an inner sun shone through crystals of sapphire. Brother Mark saw him, and
held his breath.

BOOK: The Summer of the Danes
5.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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