Cyfrin Tafod-Sidan the Bard
The great stone citadel of Carreg Tyrwyn rose from the craggy rocks of Aber Pwll, gray and arrogant against the black sky. Thousands of years ago the early Llans had made their way across the dark waters from the cruel islands to the mainland, and on this, the place of their landing, they raised huge stones as markers. Upon those boulders Tyrwyn had grown, reaching up and out, in defiance of the waves that crashed upon its western face. Over the countless centuries Tyrwyn had become a center of Llandaff trade, and a city had sprung from the rocks where once only lichen and crabs had dwelt. There were homes of wood and brick, great marketplaces and bazaars lining the now-cobbled streets of the city, and rich men called Tyrwyn home. But above it all, gazing down with barely concealed tolerance at the affluence and weakness was Carreg Tyrwyn, black and ancient, proud and eternal.
Emrys Ithel was Mawr of Tyrwyn, by right of blood and name. His ancestors had raised the first stones, at least so he claimed, and none dared to gainsay the Mawr. He was a thick-bodied man and, in a land that prized the red hair of the purebred Llan, his hair and beard were the reddest, as if his jaw and brow were aflame. The head beneath that crimson mane was large, and contained a shrewd mind, designed for plotting and calculating. Gray eyes moved deliberately from behind voluminous red eyebrows, drinking in the world, devouring images hungrily, yet not impatiently. He sat in his rock-hewn throne, watching his court at supper about him in the Neuadd, the great hall of the Carreg. Flames licked from the massive firepit in the center of the hall, the smoke escaping through vents in the vaulted stone ceiling above. About the hall, seated at ancient oaken trestles, the men and women of Tyrwyn dined on roasted lamb and leek-and-parsley broth, emptying baskets of laver bread and pitchers of brown ale. It was not a joyless gathering, as young women giggled and chattered, while men punctuated tales of the road and the hunt with shouts and laughter. This was the Mawr’s extended family, and there were many of them. Handsome folk, they were, ruddy and honest-faced, brawny men and full-figured women. All Llan by birth, and by heritage, the Mawrs of Tyrwyn had long ago forbidden their children to take to wife or husband aught but natives of Llandaff.
“Father!” bellowed Sayer Ithel, the eldest son of the Mawr and only late of a man’s age. Sayer was not a sober lad, and was overly fond of the fair-haired daughters of the lowlands of the Dolroch River valley. His hands kept busy, the one with a flagon of ale and the other with the knee of a pretty young girl. The Mawr’s brow tightened with mild disapproval; both too pretty and too young, he thought. A man who would one day become Mawr should seek hardier stock for a wife, not this yellow-haired, thin-waisted waif. He then felt a gentle hand on his arm and turned to look into the black eyes of Gwyn Talaith-Ithel, his own wife, Sayer’s mother.
“Courtesy and forbearance, good husband,” she murmured. “Your face betrays your heart. Our son is no more likely to marry this wench than he was the one before, or the one before. He is a recent rider, new to the spur and boot. Let him ride, before he chooses his steed for life.” Emrys Ithel opened his mouth to speak sharply to his wife, and then thought the better of it. It would not do for the Mawr to seem concerned about his heir’s choice of sport.
“Sayer Ithel,” replied the Mawr, voice even and benign. Ever lordly, his own father, the Mawr Drem Ithel, had taught him. Whether raising his sword in anger or sitting in council, the Mawr of Tyrwyn is ever lordly. “What is it, my son?”
“A song!” cried the heir. “No man has died, and yet Neuadd is somber as if we buried ten men this morning. Adara wishes a song, and so do I.” The young prince’s mouth smiled broadly beneath a thin wisp of red on his upper lip. His skin was light and freckled by the short northern summer, and his hazel eyes danced. The Mawr sighed. The boy favored his mother, and was good to look upon. He hoped that under the fair Talaith flesh beat a strong Ithel heart.
“My son has commanded a song.” The Mawr’s voice rang through the Neuadd, and the revelry fell silent. A hundred eyes cast about the hall, seeking the stranger who had arrived at Carreg Tyrwyn earlier that evening, astride a tired brown mare, with a great triple-harp bound up in a hard leather casing secured behind him. Such wanderers were common in the late spring and midsummer, when the mud from the snowmelt had dried and hardened, and when the sun lingered in the sky. Rarer they were in the autumn, when days grew short and the longer nights emboldened the brigands of the road. These travelers were the awenydd, the bards and lore-keepers of Llandaff, traveling across the green and gray country from keep to village, from the forest of Groesleah to the distant Oer Pwynt. There were many who sought to sing or tell tales for their board, but the true awenydd were few and prized guests. These wore an amulet of silver about their necks in the likeness of the Sea-God Crefydd, symbol of their study at the Mostyn Cynog, the ancient holy house of Llandaff.
Cyfrin felt the eyes upon him, as he had so many times before, in the vast halls of the northern Mawrs and in the hamlet squares along the Dolroch. Not a man to be rushed, he chewed and swallowed a final piece of bread, and chased it down his throat with warm ale. It is good to make them wait, he thought. His mentor Athrawus had taught him well the power of anticipation, foremost of the many arts of the awenydd. There was a thickening silence in the Neuadd, the only sounds the crackling of the fire and the snarling of the dogs as they contested over bones, and even these became hushed as Cyfrin slowly rose to his feet. He was garbed in a simple brown cloak, with no embroidery or embellishment, and his head was bare, his hair black as the winter sea, and he wore no beard. His eyes were coppery and wide, and though he was plain of face and ordinary of stature, none in the hall could tear their gaze from him.
“Lad,” he called to a nearby boy, who, as if waking from a dream, stumbled to respond. “Get yourself to the stables, and tell them Cyfrin Tafod-Sidan calls for his implement.” The boy nodded, and backed away several paces before turning and breaking into a run. There was a shout from near the Mawr’s place, a noise of recognition and delight.
“Silken Tongue!” roared the voice, and the awenydd bowed at the common translation of his lore-name. The outburst belonged to Brawd Ithel, the Mawr’s younger brother. A massive man, taller and hairier than Emrys, and bright red the hair was, so the Ail-Mawr could easily be mistaken for a blood-soaked bear. Chunks of lamb and leek were entangled in Brawd’s bushy beard, and more covered his red and black surcoat. He was a man of large appetites, indulged freely and often to the disdain of the Mawr, but these lusts included combat, and Brawd was so fierce and tireless in battle that he was invaluable to his brother as commander of his Brondyn, the Heartmen of Tyrwyn. All this Cyfrin knew, as it was the awenydd’s livelihood and armor to know such things. He smiled at the enormous man with warmth, and bent at the waist again, more deeply and with greater flourish.
“Well met, Ail-Mawr,” intoned the slight poet. “It is some seasons now since our paths crossed.” The faintest smirk, as if remembering a shared jest, crossed Cyfrin’s lips. Such subtlety was naturally lost upon Brawd Ithel, who bellowed with joy and slapped the table with one of his thick paws.
“Men of Tyrwyn, lock up your daughters! More than his tongue is silken, this one! Crefydd’s briny balls! A song you’ll have my nephew, such as you’ve not heard before in this dreary hall, if that dratted boy ever finds that harp!”
At that moment, the young boy, no more than nine years old, who had been sent in search of Cyfrin’s harp returned, staggering under his burden. Good-hearted laughter rang through the Neuadd, as the awenydd intercepted the boy before he dropped the artifact. Where the youth had struggled with the weight of it, the instrument leapt into Cyfrin’s hands as a maiden to the arms of her long-absent lover. Indeed, for a moment, he caressed it with a similar tenderness that few in the hall could begrudge, for it was fair. The pillar was tall and proud, of red maple gilt with gold in the pattern of clinging ivy; the neck was reeded and fluted gracefully, and the three sets of strings were pristine, none missing or knotted as was common with a harp so well traveled. For this was the Telyn, the ancient Harp of Ysgawen, one of the first awenydds, and a rare and almost holy item.
Taking advantage of the spell cast by the wonder of the Telyn, Cyfrin leapt nimbly atop the trestle table, harp in hand, and at his landing no plate or cup shivered, as if no more than a bird had alit. He now undid the simple clasp that held together his plain brown cloak and let it fall from his shoulders, revealing the silver amulet of the awenydd that rested on his otherwise unadorned breast. But so renowned was that device that the richest silken robes or velvet doublet would have been no more delightful to the family of Emrys Ithel, who looked on in breathless anxiety.
Cyfrin touched his fingers to the strings, and it seemed that flowers bloomed from the cold stone of the floor, and birds sang from the eaves of the Neuadd. None present, save those like Brawd who had heard before the music of a full awenydd, had ever been so entranced. The poet allowed the moment to linger before allowing the last note to slowly fade into memory. It was silent for a moment until Cyfrin directed his attention to the Mawr’s son.
“A song, young master Sayer? Songs I have. You bear on your knee a maiden fair, but not the fairest I have known. Listen now to the tale of a maid so beautiful that men laid their labors by to woo her, and gladly impoverished themselves in this pursuit. She was no princess, no merchant’s spoiled daughter, but a girl of the good earth of Llandaff, from the village of Gwellhyll.” And his fingers returned to the harp, and this time the flowers and birds of the instrument were joined by the silken tongue of the awenydd, and it seemed that all the voice of sea and sky, mountain and stars were joined together in song:
I've no sheep on the mountains
Nor boat on the lake
Nor coin in my coffer
To keep me awake
Nor corn in my garner,
Nor fruit on my tree
Yet the maid of Gwellhyll
Smiles sweetly on me.
Rich Owen will tell you,
With eyes full of scorn
Threadbare is my coat,
And my hosen are torn
Scoff on, my rich Owen,
For faint is thy glee
When the maid of Gwellhyll
Smiles sweetly on me.
The farmer rides proudly
To market and fair
And the clerk at the ale house
Still claims the great chair
But of all our proud fellows
The proudest I'll be
While the maid of Gwellhyll
Smiles sweetly on me.
Cyfrin repeated the verses more than once, and others as well, as laughter and sounds of revelry echoed in the stone hall. The young cousins of Ithel rose and danced with each other’s sisters, and with the serving-girls. Chief among these was Sayer Ithel and his blonde Adara, and they were the fairest pairing afoot, their step quickest and their laughter heartiest. So strong was the spell that even sober Emrys was forced into a rare smile as his wife’s soft hand rested on his forearm. It was an old tune, well-loved, and yet so well-played that men would not sing along, as was often the case. None wanted to befoul the clear strains of Silken Tongue and his ancient harp with their own crude voices. After a time Emrys the Mawr raised his hand, and Cyfrin ceased his harping, and the dancing and laughter ceased as well.
“Good awenydd, your talent is clear, though one does not congratulate the huntsman for slaying an old or tired stag. My son and his brethren enjoy well these tales of wooing and winning, and I grant you that once, such an effect the Maid of Gwellhyll had on my own heart. But these are not gay times, Cyfrin Tafod-Sidan. Would that the men of Llandaff had no more to face than the tilling of their fields, the casting of their nets, and the pursuing of fair maids.” A chuckle greeted this last, quickly silenced by a stern glance from the Mawr. He continued, seeking and finding the gaze of his eldest son and heir as he spoke.
“The Jords press us at Mendem’s Razor, the Romaskani creep north along the coast of the Fierlan Sae and raid across the Dolroch. Llandaff sits astride the edge of a blade, the abyss yawning to either side, and yet the sharpest peril in our very midst.” The Mawr’s voice rose as he went on. “A time when Llans cry out for the guidance from Dinas Burh, and none issues forth. A time when the red-bearded families of yesteryear must put aside the frivols and search their garden-sheds for the axes of their grandsires.” Emrys Ithel rose from his stone seat and fixed Cyfrin with a powerful stare. “War comes to Llandaff on the winds of autumn, and the Heartmen of Tyrwyn at least shall not be found wanting! Let the untamed beards be forked and braided again. Sons of Ithel! Our time comes soon.” The Mawr then left the Neuadd, and the supper was at an end.
At such moments the depth and volume of lore and song in the soul of the true awenydd serves well, and Cyfrin did not fail. His hands fell to the Telyn once more, and this time it was no fanciful ballad, but rather the noise of the war-march, and as the sound followed the Mawr down the great hallway that led from the Neuadd, his step was quickened and his heart lifted some.
Son of Ithel, see the comet flaming,
Hear a heav’nly voice declaiming,
To the world below proclaiming,
Llandaff shall be free.
While the star on high is beaming,
Soldiers from the highlands teeming,
With their spears and axes gleaming,
Come to follow thee.
Hear the trumpet sounding,
While the steeds are bounding,
On the gale from hill and dale,
The war-cry is resounding.
Heartmen famed in song and story,
Coming from the hilltops hoary,
Rushing to the fields of glory,
Eager for the fray.
To the valley wending,
Hearths and homes defending,
With their proud and valiant mawr,
From ancient lords descending;
See the mighty host advancing,
Sunbeams on their helmets dancing,
On his gallant charger prancing,
Son of Ithel leads the way.